Thursday, December 21, 2006

Remember the Night (1940)

As we count our blessings this holiday season, the Siren counts Turner Classic Movies as the greatest of these. Sunday night she finally got to see a movie she has tried to track down for a while, 1940's Remember the Night, directed by Mitchell Leisen. We all need a little warmth and kindness this time of year--yes, even us merry apostates--and this movie provided much.

The screenplay was written by Preston Sturges, but this is a sentimental romance, not one of his trademark farces. Biographer Donald Spoto says Remember the Night was written soon after Sturges's marriage (his second of four, but a honeymoon's a honeymoon), and it carries the gleam of newfound love. Barbara Stanwyck plays a shoplifter arrested just before Christmas. Fred MacMurray is the assistant D.A. who must prosecute her, a tall order since juries are inclined to be lenient around the holidays. MacMurray executes a deft courtroom maneuver and gets a continuance, meaning Stanwyck's fate won't be decided until after the holidays. But his conscience bothers him when he overhears her lamenting that she can't make bail, and so will spend Christmas in jail. He bails her out, only to have the bondsman deposit her in his apartment even as he prepares to go home to Mom in Indiana. Turns out that Stanwyck, too, is from Indiana, and MacMurray decides to take her along for the drive.

MacMurray has been dissed a bit lately, by Dave Kehr and the estimable Looker, but the Siren disagrees. He was the least starry of leading men, and that was the whole point. His good looks are of the sort you might encounter in any office. When he turns on the charm, he's no more or less resistible than that boy you used to date in college. His characters telegraph jokes like a kid brother does, with a little grin at his own cleverness (a technique that reached its apogee in Double Indemnity, as Walter Neff registers self-congratulation with every double-entendre). That everyday quality meant MacMurray gives the audience the chance to recognize itself, something that is harder to do when looking at, say, Cary Grant. When MacMurray decides to bail out Stanwyck, instead of seeing only a wildly improbable plot twist, you see the kind of reluctant, I-don't-need-the-guilt charity we all are prey to at the holidays.

Stanwyck, as usual, is marvelous. In the courtroom scene, see her watch a hambone lawyer (Willard Robertson) spin an absurd theory of how self-hypnosis lured her into unintentional theft. Stanwyck's reaction shots start out demure, but none too optimistic. As the jury starts to buy all that lawyerly hokum, her posture improves, her eyes start to sparkle. She tries to maintain a look of contrition, while she eases her gorgeous legs a little more into the jury's sightlines.

Because Stanwyck is too smart to milk the audience for sympathy, she wins it early on. MacMurray takes her to dinner after bailing her out (come on, it's a Christmas movie, suspend that disbelief) and, as a band plays "Easy Living," the title tune from an earlier Sturges-Leisen collaboration, she summarizes her life of crime. MacMurray, already succumbing a bit, half-jokingly suggests kleptomania as a defense. Won't work, says Stanwyck, as though revealing a trade secret: "You can't try to sell the stuff afterward, or you lose your amateur status."

The Indiana the characters reach, after some slapstick road diversions, has two sides, which together give Remember the Night its heart. Stanwyck's town comes first; as they drive down the Grover's Corners streets, her expression changes from eager nostalgia, to fear of what is coming next. Her house is a gingerbread Victorian, looming over the yard like a mausoleum, without a single light in the window. Here, Stanwyck tries to make up with the grimmest old meat-axe of a mother in the history of Christmas movies. The alternate-universe Beulah Bondi in It's a Wonderful Life has nothing on Georgia Caine here. The recriminations start right away, and you see that Stanwyck the shoplifter was just living down to expectations. MacMurray stands to one side, trying to stay out of it until, in a perfectly modulated moment, he tells Stanwyck they still have 50 miles to drive to his farm. No rescue was ever so low-key, and few are as endearing.

So they arrive at the farm, and whaddya know, MacMurray's mom IS Beulah Bondi. But it's the nice version, thank goodness. The rest of the movie chronicles the change in Stanwyck as Christmas shows her what family life can be like, and the change in MacMurray, as he falls in love with the shoplifter he's scheduled to put away. Both of them must decide what to do when they return to New York, and the trial. The fuss made there over Stanwyck's crime may seem more appropriate to Brigid O'Shaughnessy going down in The Maltese Falcon than a simple bracelet heist, but it still makes for a beautiful fadeout.

Nobody's all good, or all bad, not in my movies at least. There's a little bad in the best of us, and a little good in the worst of us.
--Mitchell Leisen, quoted in an appreciation at the indispensable Senses of Cinema site.

Mitchell Leisen, who started out as a set decorator, was not beloved by his two most gifted screenwriters, Sturges and Billy Wilder. Sturges always maintained Leisen ruined the script for Easy Living. (This makes the Siren wonder just how much more perfect that priceless screwball comedy was supposed to be.) "A window dresser," was Wilder's kindest assessment; when recalling an incident on Hold Back the Dawn he lapsed into slurs on Leisen's homosexuality. Wilder biographer Ed Sikov says his subject was always too hard on Leisen, but then turns around and says Leisen didn't do much more for screenplays than "record them on celluloid and make sure the lighting was good."

Phooey, says the Siren. It isn't merely lighting that makes a moment like MacMurray and Stanwyck on the porch of her childhood home. As he tries to comfort her, over his shoulder you see the mother at the door, pausing for a moment--to hurl one last insult? to see if they're leaving?--then shutting off the lights. At MacMurray's farm, there's the way the canopy in her bedroom arcs over Stanwyck's face like a bridal veil, or the way the camera hovers over a barn dance and still manages to let you pick out the couple, Stanwyck happily blending in as she never did before in Indiana.

Remember the Night's chief flaw, in the Siren's eyes, is yet another of those comical African-American servants that pockmark Sturges's movies. "I loved this movie," says one Amazon reviewer. "That's a hard statement for a black man to make about any movie in which Snowflake has a role." But beloved the film is and remains, gaining all kinds of admirers as the years go by. A film that can do that must have a great deal of the true Christmas spirit.

And in that spirit, the Siren wishes her patient readers the happiest of holidays.


Peter Nellhaus said...

Glad you got to see this film and are enjoying the pleasures of TCM. I saw Remember the Night in a 16mm print around 30 years ago. I have a vague memory of also enjoying Arise, My Love.

Exiled in NJ said...

And a wonderful holiday to you, too. And bless you for your appreciation of MacMurray. In his best roles, he forces us to say "Hey, I know that guy. He works in my office," and so it is with Walter Neff, or the scheming opportunist in Caine Mutiny who lets others take the heat, or the sleazy boss in The Apartment.

The 'Stache said...

Yeah, I've never understood Wilder's trashing of Leisen. I thought he did a fine job on Midnight, although critics give a lot of the credit to Lubitsch.

Paul said...

Girish brought your post to my attention, since I also wrote about Remember the Night. Fred MacMurray could be kind of dizzy, as he is in The Egg and I, but he could also have some grit, as he does in Remember the Night, Double Indemnity or The Apartment.

For a film that looks like it's going to be a straight romantic comedy, it get kind of dark in the end, with the whole bit with Beulah Bondi expressing her concerns, Stanwyck realizing she can't let MacMurray destroy his career for her, and that very dimly-lit ending. Great stuff.

The Siren said...

Hi Peter! So enjoying your posts from Thailand. Wishing you a happy New Year there. Since you have seen so many things, I want to ask you about a completely unrelated film: The Outrage, with Paul Newman, a version of Rashomon set in Mexico, with him in the Mifune part. Ever seen it? found an old interview with him, where Newman said it has his best work; I know you did some posts on Martin Ritt a while back.

Exiled: I completely agree! His best acting is, for some reason, when he is playing a heel. But that ordinariness of his works in his favor in the string of good comedies he did in the 30s, too. I am looking forward to seeing Hands Across the Table, which I just got as part of a Carole Lombard set.

TLRHB: It is tempting to wonder if the animosity toward Leisen was rooted in some sort of bigotry, but I really do not think so. It is more that Wilder never forgave a slight; he had a vindictive streak, whereas Sturges seemed to move on and wasn't all that rude about Leisen later on (especially since Leisen's cuts were part of why he got into directing). But Charles Boyer wanted one scene cut from Hold Back the Dawn, because it had him interrogating a cockroach, and to his dying day Wilder was abusive about Boyer AND Leisen, for letting the star get away with it. This, despite the fact that Wilder admitted the movie inadvertently turned out better without the scene.

Peter: thanks so much for stopping by! I like your take on the movie too. It really does have an ending that is so dark, I found it just a touch silly. I mean, it is a SHOPLIFTING charge, not a murdered partner. I have not been able to find out how much the end owed to the "Crime Must Not Pay, Even When It Does" ethos of the Hays Code. I think it is truer to the characters & situation to have it end with her going to jail, but the way it is shot & lit is startling, as you point out. It could have been done in a much more upbeat, "see you in four years" kind of way.

Aaron W. Graham said...

Amazed to see that not one, not two, but three bloggers took the time out to post about TCM's showing of REMEMBER THE NIGHT! A great testament to the power of the picture.

Warm regards for this holiday season.

The Siren said...

Wow, Aaron, I love your piece on this movie, too! You have a darker reading of that ending than I did, but it is very persuasive. And I skipped over the Niagara sequence altogether, but you do a beautiful job with it. I also really enjoyed reading about all the scenes Leisen deleted. Sturges got kind of grumpy about Leisen's deletions, according to Spoto, but it sounds like the director really tightened things up.

Actually, counting you, me, Paul and Mr. Klavan of Libertas, we now have a grand total of FOUR bloggers struck enough by this movie to write about it. I suspect Girish could have turned in something about it, too, had he tried. TCM needs to make this one a holiday tradition.

Warm holiday wishes to you, as well!

Phil Dyess-Nugent said...

I'd never heard of this movie until a month or two ago, when a couple of on-line friends who know I love Sturges mentioned that I should keep an eye peeled for it. Boy, did I enjoy finding out that it was out there. And God, do I love this site.

The Siren said...

Phil, thanks so much. I have read you several times on No More Mr. Nice Blog, I am very glad you dropped by. Hope you do so again!

Anonymous said...

Your post has reminded me of "the Gym class of film criticism", if only because there is also the tendency, among critics (even the auteuriste ones), to stablish Leagues of directors... according to which there are Geniuses and plain artisans.

Leisen is usually classified in the minor leagues, but having seen a number of his films over the time, I wouldn't subscribe that notion. I was lucky to attend, a few years ago, to a Leisen film season, including a screening of the lavish "Lady in the Dark", which was introduced (and later debated with the attending public) by an enthusiastic Leisen scholar called David Chierichetti (i couldn't resist later buying Mr. Chierichetti's book on the director, which proved a worthwile purchase).

Leisen's previous occupation in set and costume designing didn't, IMHO, play against his directing work, as suggested by some detractors... in fact he had the chance of being more creative than directors who just leave those issues to the respective departments. His roman costumes for "Sign of the Cross" are a luxuriant mix of art-decó, pre-code costume risqué-dness and sinful Imperial decadence

And, well, "Death Takes a Holiday" is zillions better than the recent "Have you met Joe Black?" ain't it?

BTW, Bones festes i feliç any nou, Sirena i familia

Brian Darr said...

I bet I love Sturges as much as just about anybody. But having read his original script for this film I'm convinced that Leisen's cuts benefitted the film. Sturges wrote some scenes between MacMurray and "Snowflake" that, beyond questions of polical correctness, just come off as way too mean-sprited for this film. MacMurray is supposed to be a hardened criminal-defender, but if he were a complete jerk the whole narrative would fall apart.

Anyway, I think Leisen is still waiting for appreciation at the level he deserves. Anyone seen [i]Murder at the Vanities[/i], a routine baskstage mystery turned into something quite unique under Leisen's hand?

girish said...

How great to see all the admiration for this film!

After I read the Siren's post, I just had to do a Mitchell Leisen/Barbara Stanwyck double bill that afternoon (REMEMBER THE NIGHT/NO MAN OF HER OWN). I wish more Leisen were available on video.

The Siren said...

Gloria, Brian & Girish - I really think Leisen deserves another look as a director. His movies are way too good to have gotten there by accident, but you read some critiques and wonder if they directed themselves. Now I am longing to see Midnight again!

Anonymous said...

I have to say I agree about Leisen - I don't see him as a hack director at all, and Sturges did have a bad habit of writing those awful "grinning servile Negro" parts. He may have given Charles Moore a tart line every now and then, but it hardly made up. I saw less demeaning characterizations of blacks in Warner pictures of the 30's, Petrified Forest even made a joke out of the servile black role.

The Siren said...

MNDean, I completely agree. I don't recollect reading about Preston Sturges' personal attitudes on race, but the evidence of the movies is pretty damning.

surly hack said...

I feel like I am time travelling backwards...

Remember The Night has always been a romantic favorite of mine--great script AND direction. I agree that Leisen is underappreciated. I also agree with you on the film's glaring fault.

Girish mentions No Man Of Her Own, which I stll haven't seen. This is quite frustrating because I am aso a fan of Stanwyck and Cornell Woolrich.

surly hack said...

Campaspe, You inspired me to watch Remember again after many years. You and Aaron W. Graham both find the ending too dark and downbeat, and think it a bit heavy for the minor charge of shoplifting.
I feel that this darkness is present throughout the film (and is reflected in the title change from The Amazing Marriage), and is part of Leisen’s serious approach to the story—perhaps too much so for Sturges. The only thing that separates the two is her crime. And however minor it may be, and though it is explained by her upbringing, Leisen nevertheless takes seriously Stanwyck's desire to change and to take responsibility for the first time in her adult life--responsibility both for the crime and for MacMurrays's career and future. As corny as it may seem, Leisen plays this straight.
It is also striking that the dramatic scenes in the middle of the film all end in silence, without musical cues. This even, often sombre tone, and the underplaying of the comedy and Stanwyck’s sarcasm is probably what most separates Leisen from Sturges. Sturges was known for his wild tonal swings, and his very unique mixing of sophisticated scripts with broad, physical comedy. Leisen smooths the rough edges over for a more classically fluid and unified approach, but an approach which better serves the romantic film. What might have been distracting shtick with Sterling Holloway, for instance, is modulated into softer character comedy.
Leisen’s seamless but never too slick craft is evident throughout. Take the early dinner scene, where Stanwyck and MacMurray dance to "Back Home In Indiana". Without attention grabbing auterist flourish, Leisen closely follows the couple on the dance floor, unobtrusively moving back to the band without a cut. The deftly moving camera carries much of the unscripted romantic weight here, without any soft-focus close-up needed to underline the point.
Perhaps this subtle and straightforward seriousness is what bothered the cynical Wilder and the more complicated, easily bored Sturges, but it serves Remember The Night brilliantly.

Unknown said...

Excellently written, Siren. Thank you for you dedication and love and insight!