Tuesday, July 24, 2012
This Is My Love (1954)
Dan Duryea dancing in a wheelchair to the strains of the "Vienna Blood" waltz is one of those deep cinematic needs you never realize you had until suddenly, it's fulfilled.
Fulfillment came from This Is My Love, an airily romantic title for a snake-mean film. Filmed in PatheColor at RKO in 1954, the Siren's DVD (taped off a British show) had yellowed like an old book, giving the proceedings an even more jaundiced feel. It could be called noir; the movie's certainly pitiless enough. There's also plenty enough sexual inhibition (mention is made of the Kinsey Report) and bourgeois fossilization for a social drama.
The credits roll over vegetation getting drenched by such a downpour that the Siren had the vague impression the movie is set on a rubber plantation, like The Letter. Nope, just a bungalow in California. Vida Dove (Linda Darnell) is at her typewriter, one tear rolling down her face as she types "...THREE WEEKS AGO..." (She writes in all caps, like Film Critic Hulk.) Then, flashback. (An interesting device because the ending all but abandons the framing and when the credits rolled, the Siren had to go back to see that the set-up wasn't something everybody forgot about mid-filming.)
So, THREE WEEKS AGO, Vida was writing a story to ESCAPE THE DREARY MONOTONY OF HER LIFE, and her brother-in-law Murray (Duryea) was wheeling around the house, calling her an old maid who never puts out. Murray is in a wheelchair because—whoops, you're never told. He was a professional dancer who had "an accident," which leaves you to imagine him tossing a partner in the air and having her land smack on his lower vertebrae. Murray began by dating Vida, but soon switched to her sister Evelyn (Faith Domergue). Now they're locked up in this dingy crate, where Vida shares a bedroom with the couple's two kids, a trim symbol of her life on the sidelines.
Evelyn and Vida wait tables at Murray's roadside restaurant, the Circle Inn. Get it? Circle Inn? drawing around you, like a noose? Almost every name in the movie is like that. Vida, meaning life, as Murray sarcastically points out to her; Evelyn, Evie, the woman who always comes first; Eddie (a wonderfully coarse, braying Hal Baylor), Vida's fiancé, a whirlpool sucking everyone into tedium. Into the restaurant Eddie brings his good-looking pal Glenn (Rick Jason). (Glen, a restful valley, see what they did there?) Glenn and Vida are immediately attracted to one another. But the inexperienced Vida can't respond normally, and her "come hither" rapidly becomes "not that hither." Glenn shifts his attentions to Evie, and for Vida, that's one too disappointment too many.
It's an unsettling, hardhearted movie that refuses to sympathize overmuch with any of the characters, trapped and pathetic though they are all. The idea of casting Darnell as a frigid spinster sounds about as apt as casting her as the Virgin Mary in The Song of Bernadette, but it makes sense (mostly) once you are drawn in. Some men in the movie do respond the way you'd expect them to respond to Linda Darnell. Vida's fear of men is reflexive and, the movie implies in a very proto-feminist Philip Wylie sort of way, largely due to society's hypocritical view of sexuality. Darnell's wounded demeanor gives the character great resonance; her writing seems a desperate bid to make daydreams tangible. Most of her best scenes are played against Murray, the man Vida once wanted and her sister took. Now her brother-in-law is literally castrated, circling and taunting her with the things neither one of them has. She speaks to him in that creamy Darnell voice, and only a fair bit into the movie do you realize that her low-pitched rejoinders are as pointed in their way as Murray's barbs.
The meat of the movie is the relationship between these two hopeless, spent individuals, strangers to sex and therefore, we're meant to believe, to life. Evie and Glenn carry on with their good looks and their unwarped emotions, not realizing that simply being normal makes them charmed in a way that Murray and Vida will never be. Eventually, as she must, Vida unleashes a lifetime's worth of frustration and disabling rage straight into Murray's face, a speech that comes out of Darnell in heaving bursts, like a tear-gassed person gulping for air. It's as good a piece of dramatic acting as Darnell ever offered, and you feel for Vida more than in any other part of the movie. But that's just you. Dan Duryea laughs, because Dan Duryea always laughs at true anguish.
Duryea had what the French call a "tête à claques"—a face you want to hit, only with Duryea you want to use a blunt instrument. Rare are the instances from his heyday where Duryea shows up and isn't murdered by the final reel. Here it's as though some bright person said, "Let's take away Dan's gun, and his fists, and his blackmailing, and his hat, and this time, let's see if we can make the audience want him dead just so's he'll shut up." It works, of course. There was no actor who could match Duryea's drone, the sound of bad plumbing in an old building; or the way his mouth scrunches up toward his nose like a piece of dried fruit; or that rattlesnake lunge of Duryea's head and shoulders when he's ready to go full-bore sadist.
It isn't a great movie, but it picks at you like a scab. The Circle Inn is gratifyingly hideous, with bamboo-covered walls and a leaf-green valence that runs around the ceiling and even continues over the opening between the kitchen and the lunch counter, to make the tunafish sandwiches look fancier when the cook rings the bell, I guess. The furniture in the bungalow has been pushed to the walls so it looks like an ER waiting room, creating a vast empty space, the better for Duryea to roll after Darnell each time she tries to get away from his venom.
Director Stuart Heisler also has The Glass Key, Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman and The Star on his resume, but the Siren only found that out after muttering "Stuart who?" and scurrying to Google. Not a huge talent, but a man with some style, although the Siren attributed the frequent shots of Darnell in her form-fitting rayon slips to the lecher running RKO at the time.
This Is My Love is the only pre-1960 movie the Siren can recall that shows a poisoned cockroach dying, close up—a good summary of the atmosphere. When Murray and Eddie play catch in the living room, the thwack-thwack of the ball hitting their hands starts to sound like time itself running down. And that glimpse of the crippled Duryea "waltzing" is unforgettable, the actor swinging his head and his chair in grotesquely precise 3/4 time.