Alex Sebastian in “Notorious” (RKO, 1946) is one of Claude Rains’ best parts. As Sebastian, Rains’ performance is so indelible that once you’ve seen it, it’s hard to imagine another actor in the role. After “Notorious,” whenever a picture called for a silky, suave villain, producers would tell the casting agent: “get me a Claude Rains type.” Rains was not, however, Hitchcock’s first choice. Hitch wanted that poor man’s George Sanders, Clifton Webb. To be sure, Webb would have been entirely convincing as a mama’s boy (which he was). He was, moreover, such an unsympathetic screen presence, one would be glad to believe he was also a Nazi. But as a heterosexual in the grip of an obsessive sexual passion for Ingrid Bergman . . . not bloody likely. One can easily imagine his putting clothes on Ingrid Bergman, but not his tearing them off. Hitchcock had to be convinced to let Rains play the role. When he talked to Rains about the part, Hitch asked him, “What about this business of a being a midget?”
“What do you mean, a midget?”
“Your wife, Ingrid Bergman, is very tall. There are occasions when we can build a ramp, but have you ever worn elevated shoes?” It was a blow to Rains’ pride, but he bought the lifts and often used them throughout the rest of his career.
When critics refer to Sebastian as a Nazi mama’s boy, there’s always the sense that they find his being a mama’s boy somehow more objectionable than his being a Nazi. The other famous Hitchcock mama’s boy is also a villain: Norman Bates. In that one, Bates’ villainy only comes out when he actually IS his mama. I’m not sure what to make of this, other than Hitch was a strange fellow.
Bergman isn’t good in the first reel, when we’re supposed to believe she’s a hard-drinking tramp, but after the first dozen or so minutes, I’d say it’s the best performance of her career. Cary Grant, for once, doesn’t twinkle and make coy faces, but he goes too far in the other direction: he’s so brutal and unyielding, it’s hard to understand why Bergman puts up with him. He is very good looking and beautifully dressed, but what a swine . . . I keep thinking she’d be better off with Rains, if only he weren’t trying to kill her.
The most famous scene in the picture is the big party and the furtive investigation of the wine cellar — it’s Hitchcock at his absolute best. But my favorite scene happens the morning after, when Sebastian in robe and slippers goes into his mother’s (Madame Konstantin) bedroom and tells her that he is in big trouble. “I am married to an American agent,” a memorable line reading that belongs (but isn’t) on the AFI’s 100 Movie Quotes list. Mme. Konstantin responds by lighting a cigarette while she absorbs the news in silence. It doesn’t take more than five seconds, but it’s a Master Class in great acting. She conveys more about her character in those few seconds of silence than most actresses could convey in a hundred lines of dialogue.
But it is Rains’ performance that makes the deepest impression. As usual, he dominates every scene he’s in. He makes the Nazi mama’s boy a more sympathetic character than Cary Grant’s hero. It was his fourth and last Academy Award nomination. He didn’t win this time, either. For this was the year that Clifton Webb was supposed to win for “The Razor’s Edge,” only to lose out (along with Rains) to Harold Russell in “The Best Years of our Lives.”
About “Now, Voyager.” Its failings are many, but I continue to love it, probably because I’ve always gotten deep satisfaction from transformation stories. The first and final scenes are wonderful, but in the middle there is much to dislike.
Here’s an important early scene, in which Rains, as Dr Jacquith, America’s foremost alienist, does what he does better than anyone else. The material is entirely second-rate, composed almost entirely of platitudes, but he makes it sound like the last word in compassionate sagacity. His closing line, “I suggest a few weeks at Cascade . . . ” lets you know that poor, crazy Aunt Charlotte will emerge from Dr Jacquith’s sanitarium as a butterfly from a chrysalis.
“Now, Voyager” works just about perfectly for the first forty-five minutes or so, until Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) and Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid) take that taxicab in Rio, driven by that stereotypical (but completely inaccurate) greaseball, Giuseppe. (He’s supposed to be Brazilian, but he’s named Giuseppe and his cartoon gibberish sounds nothing like Portuguese.) The taxicab scene is tiresome and offensive and goes on forever. Happily, it is followed by several wonderful episodes, beginning with their romantic parting in Rio, which is beautifully written and acted. The scenes immediately following Charlotte’s homecoming are the best in the picture: Gladys Cooper fully expects her neurotic child to return to enslavement without a murmur of protest; she is seriously displeased when the wretched girl mildly refuses to do as she’s told. Cooper rebukes her for refusing to perform a daughter’s duty, but Charlotte dryly observes, “Dr Jacquith says tyranny is often expressed as the maternal instinct.” Cooper’s surprise and outrage are wonderful to behold. Every new encounter becomes a skirmish in which the old woman pursues a new strategy, but the girl treats chastisement and obloquy as if they were birthday greetings, and Cooper must quickly beat a retreat while she gives the matter more thought. Finally, she threatens to cut off Charlotte’s allowance completely and to disinherit her: but the ungrateful girl blandly tells her “I’ve often thought of working for a living. I’d make an excellent headwaitress.” Over the course of these episodes, the old tyrant slowly comes to realize that this stubborn female person is no longer her neurotic daughter/servant Charlotte: this person is Bette Davis — obedience isn’t what she does. I love every scene with Gladys Cooper, but when the old cat finally drops dead and the guilt-ridden Charlotte runs back to Cascade, the picture hits another patch of tedium while Charlotte finds herself looking after young Miss Tina Durrance, the most insufferable little neurotic in the history of motion pictures. Let me point out at once that the little actress is actually quite terrific: it is the character who is so revolting. At least, until Charlotte takes charge of her.
I’ve always wondered about the theory of treatment at Cascade(s): I mean, who in his right mind would believe it a good idea to force a nervous wreck like Tina to compete at ping pong with children who are far more skillful than she, especially if they are equally neurotic? That strikes me as a sure way to push her over the edge. But then Charlotte steps in. Something marvellous happens when the ugly little duckling comes under Charlotte’s care. Earlier in the picture, Charlotte herself had gone from ugly duckling to swan. Now she transforms her by-proxy daughter from ugly duckling to . . . ugly duckling with cleaner fingernails and an expensive party dress. For a long time, that threw me. Whenever I saw homely, awkward little Tina descending the stairs in her ribbons and ruffles, I thought of those lines from “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington”:
She’s a vile girl and uglier than mortal sin,
One look at her has put me in
A tearing bloody rage.
But then I noticed how beautifully the child actress, Janis Wilson, handled the scene. All dressed up, she’s still not pretty and she knows it. She’s awkward and self-conscious and pathetic. But she’s doing her best to look poised, confident and pretty, because she wants to please Charlotte and her father. It’s an amazing little performance.
Moments before this, Claude Rains has asked the immortal question, “Roasting wienies?!” Quite irresistible!
It was wise to cast Claude Rains as Dr Jaquith, because Dr J, as written, may be the worst alienist who ever drew breath. Rains soft pedals the terrible advice and lays on the creamy charm with a large trowel. “You’ll never get a new pair of eyes if you spoil them with tears,” is some of the first quackery we hear from him and there’s plenty more to follow. I mention this because Olive Higgins Prouty, the author of the novel, had a long acquaintance with psychiatrists. When she was twelve, she suffered a breakdown that lasted nearly two years. Later on, when she was a successful novelist, she became a philanthropist and gave an endowment to Smith College, where she first met Sylvia Plath. After Plath’s failed suicide attempt, Prouty supported her financially. To show her gratitude, Plath caricatured her in “The Bell Jar.”
Keep a look out for what Gladys Cooper does with her hands. She uses them to great effect in a few important scenes. I’ve always admired her technical skill, especially since she wasn’t, alas, a great actress. I love the way the camera focuses on Cooper’s fingers drumming on the bedpost while she listens to Charlotte’s disobedience. That may be the best thing she ever did in pictures. She was une grande dame par excellence and a thorough professional, but she wasn’t imaginative or talented enough to be great. Her voice wasn’t terribly interesting or expressive, though I am CRAZY in love with her old-fashioned pronunciation. She provides a window into Edwardian pronunciation: for instance, she’s the only person I’ve ever heard pronounce “secretiveness” as seCREETiveness. In another picture, she’s the only one to pronounce the last name “Cartwright” as KHAR-tritt. Both pronunciations are clearly (at least to me) not her own invention, but fossils from Edwardian, perhaps even Victorian RP (i.e., “received pronunciation” — you may already know that acronym, but it was new to me as of about a year ago). Gladys Cooper didn’t have the imagination to come up with eccentric pronunciations. Such eccentricities as she possessed were not eccentricities at her career’s beginning, when she was universally considered to be the most beautiful woman in England (circa 1905 – 1925). The British postcard industry was invented almost entirely so that her face could be printed and mailed about the country and all over the world. She was a good, sensible actress, but hardly a great one. Bette Davis loved her, really adored and admired her. When Davis made her memorable appearance on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971, it was the day after Cooper died. Davis paid a brilliant, moving tribute to Gladys Cooper . . . so moving, in fact, that I hunted down Sheridan Morley’s biography of Cooper, which I read, and also had a look at as many of her movie performances as I could find. She never, ever gave a bad performance, but she rarely did anything terribly imaginative. She simply wasn’t that clever. That’s why her hands in “Now, Voyager” mean something to me. She communicates anxiety and frustration with them in a way that neither her voice nor her face were capable of. I like to think that Cooper rose to the occasion of working with a great actress like Bette Davis and a great actor like Claude Rains (whom she knew from her theatre days in London — by the way, she was the first living actress in England to have a theatre named after her). But I’m afraid this is sentimental fantasy on my part. She had no use for ugly actors and certainly recognized and deplored incompetent actors. But I doubt she recognized Davis’ and Rains’ greatness — certainly not fully. Davis’ adoration was almost certainly one-sided: Cooper doubtless thought Davis’ admiration was simply an indication of common sense.
John Gielgud told a funny story about the time he attempted to direct the aging Mrs Patrick Campbell (Shaw’s first Eliza Doolittle) in a West End play in the early 30s. Mrs Pat abruptly quit the show shortly before opening night, because she wanted to spend more time with her dogs. But before she did this, she raised hell at every rehearsal, one way or another. Though the play was perfectly straight-forward, Mrs Pat was (or pretended to be) in a constant state of irritable bewilderment. She interrupted one run-through by demanding, “Who are these people? Where do they come from? Does Gladys Cooper know them?” Cooper was not a great actress, but she most definitely had been a very great star for a very long time. Adoration was what she expected. In Hollywood, it was not always what she got.
Irving Rapper, the director, was a Warners’ workhorse — not particularly distinguished, but competent. He did a lot of apprentice work as dialogue director on pictures like “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Dark Victory,” “Juarez” and “All This, and Heaven Too.” The look, I’d suggest, is more the work of the Director of Photography, Sol Polito, who did a lot of excellent work in his career, including “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Old Acquaintance” and several other Davis and Flynn pictures. Still, Rapper must have had a lot to say about it, especially since “Deception,” photographed by another great DP (Ernest Haller — one of Davis’ favorites: e.g., “Jezebel,” “Dark Victory,” “All This, and Heaven Too”), is notable for how great it looks. But part of the great look was the Warners’ style, which I find irresistible, even in many of their cruddier pictures. I can almost always tell a Warners picture within a few minutes.
For my money, “Now, Voyager” is one of Max Steiner’s best scores, specifically because it adds romance without being intrusive. “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon: we have the stars.” is a beauty of a last line, and it is greatly helped by the underscoring. Steiner adds musicality to Davis’ voice that wasn’t there without music. His other great score is the one he wrote for “Casablanca,” which I consider to be the absolute model of great scoring. There’s one important musical cue in that picture — the underscoring for the Paris montage sequence — variations on “As Time Goes By” — that I swear is responsible for making audiences (including me) accept the picture as a great, gorgeous romance rather than a story of an attractive, somewhat bovine young woman and a middle-aged man in a partial toupee, with cigarettes and bourbon staining his false teeth and befouling his breath. There are a hundred things right with “Casablanca”; it’s one of my favorite pictures (though I don’t consider it a great one), and up at the top of the list is Steiner’s score, which is very nearly invisible to the ear, but creates atmosphere every bit as effectively and persuasively as the fog and rain in the last scene and the rotating blades of the ceiling fans in Rick’s Café Americain.
The Passionate Friends
By her own admission, Ann Todd was not much of an actress. Unfortunately, this did not prevent her from playing the prima donna and, as far as Claude Rains was concerned, wasting everybody’s time on the set. Moreover, during the filming of “The Passionate Friends” — a literate, nicely acted romantic triangle picture from 1948 (released in ’49) — director David Lean began carrying on an affair with her, while he was still married to actress Kay Walsh, and it appears that Todd took wicked advantage of her hold over her director/lover. Lean confessed to Rains, “Claude, I’m going to get into awful trouble.” And he did. Rains admired Lean enormously as a director (the feeling was mutual), but thought Lean was mad to have taken up with Todd — a man-eating “machine,” as he called her. After shooting wrapped, Lean married her in May of 1949. They divorced in 1957. Rains was appalled. “By God, she took every cent from him. I don’t think anyone could live happily with that woman. She took every damn thing away from him. He ended up with nothing but an old car.”
Todd was often referred to as “the pocket Garbo.” That seems about right: I’d add that she could just as reasonably be called “the pinched Garbo”: except for the rare occasions when she smiled, she always looked as if her shoes were too tight. She had a lovely speaking voice and beautiful diction (she studied elocution at the Central School for Speech and Drama in London) — all very good, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough.
Rains was too much of a professional to let his personal dislike interfere with his performance. I rather think his irritation with the actress adds sauce to their onscreen relationship. The picture has been almost entirely forgotten, yet it’s among his best performances (which, admittedly puts it among a large number) and unquestionably the best she ever gave. On the surface, his character, Howard Justin, is a standard issue Rains part: powerful, unflappable man of the world brought low by a straying woman. But I doubt if Rains ever gave a more intensely emotional performance than he gives in this one. For much of the picture, Howard Justin could be a stand-in for Alexander Sebastian (“Notorious”), Alexander Hollenius (“Deception”) or Victor Grandison (“The Unsuspected”), but near the end of the picture, things change — and Rains cuts loose in an emotional torrent that always overwhelms me, no matter how often I see the last reel.
“The Passionate Friends” is based on H.G. Wells’ novel of the same name. The screenplay is by a fine espionage novelist, Eric Ambler: the Thinking Man’s Ian Fleming. Like Fleming, Ambler often featured a number of recurring characters in his novels, but none of them ever caught on like James Bond — more’s the pity: Ambler was much the better writer. His screenplay for “The Passionate Friends” is wonderfully literate. In an early flashback scene (surprisingly, “The Passionate Friends” has more flashbacks than most film noirs, a genre that practically subsisted on the device), Steven Stratton (Trevor Howard) and his girlfriend Mary (Ann Todd), lie in a meadow and recite from Keats’ “Endymion”:
All its more ponderous and bulky worth
Is friendship, whence there ever issues forth
A steady splendour; but at the tip-top,
There hangs by unseen film, an orbed drop
Of light, and that is love:
Mary does not marry Stratton, whom she loves. She marries Justin, whom she does not love — and to make life easier on everybody, she decides never to see Stratton again. But this is a love triangle, so their paths needs must cross. They run into each other at the New Year’s Eve party, 1939 — she with her husband, he with his current girlfriend.
This meeting leads to a more serious rift and again Mary vows to avoid Stratton. Nine years pass before their paths cross again. In a voice-over, she says: “I suppose that if Fate had been kind and gentle, we would never have met again. But Fate is not kind and gentle: it sent us together to a sunlit lake and snow-capped mountains and a holiday in Switzerland.” It’s a fine bit of writing, that; with her beautiful diction, Todd makes it exquisite — perhaps the one time in her career that Todd actually elevated good material.
In another scene, Mary reads this passage from a book she pulls from a shelf in Stratton’s flat:
In the beginning God gave to every people a cup of clay, and from this cup they drank their life.
It’s from a creation myth of the Digger Indians in California; I find it very beautiful, even though I don’t believe a word of it. This is approximately how I feel about the central conflict of this love triangle story. Mary refuses to marry Stratton because she says she doesn’t want to “belong” to anyone, and he responds, “Then your life will be a failure.” We’re supposed to agree with him, but I wouldn’t marry anyone who said anything so caddish. On the other hand, she goes off and marries Howard Justin, a man she doesn’t love, because he’s rich and offers her security and a kind of life she couldn’t otherwise afford. It seems to me that, since Howard did not win her hand, but purchased it, she belongs to him, and without the compensation of true love. That neither she nor Stratton sees it that way strikes me as a bit thick, especially since they’re given to spouting such lovely poetry at each other. But let that go: I think it may be accepted as a romance version of Hitchcock’s McGuffin — an unimportant, but necessary device to set the machinery in motion. Once the engine is running, the rest of the picture clicks along efficiently and by the end, the emotional impact is very impressive indeed.
“The Passionate Friends” is one of David Lean’s later black and white pictures; after “Hobson’s Choice” in 1954, he made big Technicolor pictures. His pictures always look good, but I prefer his smaller, more intimate black and white features; the cinematography (by Guy Green) in this one is great: enough to make it well worth seeing. The screenplay and the acting make it a minor classic. So why was it not a hit in the United States? I’ve often wondered. Perhaps the name change had something to do with it. In America, it was retitled “One Woman’s Story.” Perhaps even more likely, it was the marketing. Have a look at the ludicrous poster for the original release.
When Rains was asked if he could explain the reason for the name change, he replied, “Apparently, Americans don’t understand passion.”
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