Previous Top Ten By Year: 1949 Posts:
Top Ten By Year: 1949 – Poll Results
100 Images from the Films of 1949
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1949: A Love Letter
#10. The Queen of Spades (UK/Dickinson)
#9. Rendezvous in July (Becker)/Au royaume des cieux (Duvivier) (France)
#8. Too Late for Tears (US / Haskin)
#7. The Heiress (US / Wyler)
#6. The Set-Up (US / Wise)
#5. Caught (US / Ophüls)
For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year project:
The majority of my viewing habits have been dictated by this project since September of 2013. Jumping to a different decade each time, I choose comparatively weaker years for me re: quantity of films seen/quantity of films loved. I use list-making as a way to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-drive way. I was sick of spending too much time trying to decide what to watch, or watching films just to cross them off another dumb canon list. I wanted to engage. I wanted films to be enhanced by others, by looking at a specific moment in time. I wanted something that led me to seeing or revisiting things I might not have gotten to otherwise. Lastly, my lists are based on personal favorites, not any weird notion of an objective best.
This is the first year I’ll be doing separate posts for each film. #9 will go up Monday. After that, one will go up each day until the end. Then I’ll post them all together so they are gathered in one place. There are a lot of films I loved that did not make the cut. In particular, Flamingo Road, Such a Pretty Little Beach, On the Town, Inspirace, The Reckless Moment, Reign of Terror, The Rocking Horse Winner, and Samson and Delilah are all films I thought at one point would be on here. Of all of these, Flamingo Road was a sure thing until it wasn’t at the very last minute. Please go watch it.
#4. The Passionate Friends (UK / Lean) (first-time viewing)
Playing image association with David Lean’s The Passionate Friends conjures up a jellyfish and its streamer arms floating weightless in the ocean. Maybe it’s because I cast the image of Mary (Ann Todd) out on the balcony, billowing curtain in the foreground as she says goodbye to a different life once and for all, over the whole film. But there’s more to it than that. That wind and those floating curtains are just part of the visual language Lean uses to represent the life Mary doesn’t choose. There is the gentle ripple of the water, the outstretched tree branches that create particles of shadow, and the impossible majesty of the Swiss Alps. They are all part of the sensuality and openness of nature, the choice not made. The jellyfish is a clumsy descriptor, but maybe it’s fitting that I struggle to describe a film that seems to exist in the ethereal.
The Passionate Friends shows the ways time and memory play off each other in the psyche. Just as the properties of nature have the power to signal shifts in thought, atmosphere and objects can become tickets to elsewhere. The Set-Up uses time in the most confining of ways; the emotional lives of its characters are tethered to what is happening within those fateful seventy-three minutes. The Passionate Friends uses time as a structural and thematic bedrock; the subjectivity of its characters become inextricable from the past and the never-was.
The film confused some viewers when it was released (even for the flashback frenzy of the 40s, this was a lot to take in). We begin in Switzerland and travel back nine years, and then (for a brief time) another nine years. We then follow the same route back; nine years forward, and another nine to Switzerland for the final act. The structure recalls John Stahl’s The Locket, another 1940s film that uses to-and-fro flashbacks. The Locket gets more complicated by shifting perspectives as well as time. But The Passionate Friends not only forgoes most standard flashback cues, it even intercuts moments of imagined conversations and actions as characters traverse through humiliation and regret in the exact moments they are felt.
These forays into the internal both jolt and wash over the characters (and us), as inner lives and the autonomy of human emotion are wont to do. Lean always makes sure that the exterior communicates the interior. In an early scene, Mary sits in the carriage next to her husband, doused in darkness and boxed in by both the frame and the shroud of her veil. Barely visible, she is lost in reflections that hurt. Then we’re in the past, and we can feel the sensuality of nature everywhere. It is so bright; Mary and Steven are young and in love. Sunlight covers them, and branches shade them. Together they create a shimmering screen (seen above) that recalls the curtain of the first still (an image that comes much later in the film), and the veil that envelopes Mary in the carriage. In The Passionate Friends, images call back and signal to each other constantly. The veil is the curtain is the sun and shade. It is all of a piece.
All of a sudden there is a whistling screech as the carriage stops short. We are yanked back to the present the exact moment Mary is. There is no pomp and circumstance, no smooth transition. It is cruel, and we feel the loneliness of that carriage so much more. Compare this to how A Letter to Three Wives initiates flashbacks (also from 1949 with an advanced flashback structure); the autotune distortion of a repeated phrase hypnotizes us into and out of the past. There is the slow blur of the frame, a go-to sign that a flashback is coming our way. Lean doesn’t hand-hold. He wants to put you in the viscous of the emotional. The drift-in and shock-out of memory is faithful to Mary’s state of mind. We are with her — truly with her. The Passionate Friends is full of filmmaking that administers a psychic and emotional immediacy, a surprising early onset example of the discontinuous editing that would be en vogue in decades to come.
The Passionate Friends is a human drama rich enough for me to have seen drastically different takeaways on both its characters and its depiction of love and romance. The Passionate Friends is in that Daisy Kenyon class of “it’s complicated”, a sensual film about unsensual people. A film about repeating choices. There are no easy answers, just a lot of messy and contradictory feelings and desires. It’s not about the kinds of love we like to dream about, though it initially fools you into thinking it is. There is a different kind of love happening here, a sturdier love that sneaks up on both sides of the screen, borne out of epiphanies that have their own kind of beauty.
Mary knowingly gives up love for autonomy, money, and comfort with Howard Justin (Claude Rains). Their marriage is amicable, providing her with the kind of emotional freedom she needs and the finer things she wants. When we first meet her she’s on a plane to Switzerland. She sits in luxury, spoiled by “White bread. Butter. Cream!”. A big bowl of fruit even sneaks into the frame. She is, literally, in the clouds. One could argue this is the most openly passionate she appears in the entire film. This is the life she chose and the life she ultimately wants. There are no external forces preventing Steven and Mary from being together. Howard is not a tyrant. Freedom is always hers, including the choice to leave. She never does.
But every nine years she is destined to almost choose Steven (Trevor Howard), the pleasant professor of humble means. Mary’s trouble is the curse of knowing who you are, and knowing that the love you want isn’t the love for you (“I’ve always been a little hard”). Or thinking that you know that about yourself. Sometimes she seems to hold herself back, as if knowing this about herself has simply closed her off to what is possible. Mary and Steven can only exist in the “what if?”, but her self-assessment seems so absolute as to forbid any warmth in her life. For her, passion means first and foremost a loss of control and selfhood. She needs to belong to herself, an objective for a woman rarely understood today let alone then, and one that positions Mary as an outsider in the world.
How much is there really between Steven and Mary? As with so many romances, their feelings remain strong because they are left unprocessed. What could have been likely remains so much stronger than what would have been. Lean connects them metaphysically; dissolves erase the space between them as they think of each other in their respective solitude. Any time she is in the open air, the memory of Steven surrounds her (even if she doesn’t know it). Despite Lean’s lean (I’ll see myself out) into these romanticisms, The Passionate Friends is not a film about lost love. It’s more about mourning the type of person you long to be but aren’t (and can’t we all relate to that?!). Not being with Steven isn’t necessarily about not being with Steven; it’s about feeling passion and desire but not being able to live by that.
The juxtaposition between the life she chose and the life she didn’t can be seen at the New Year’s Eve ball (the scene always referenced in relation to Phantom Thread). On the ground floor she is seen catching up with her one-time soulmate. It is anarchy; they have to yell their pleasantries at each other, and there are Josef Von Sternberg amounts of balloons and streamers everywhere. In keeping with the spontaneous spirit of the event, they soon get split up. Soon after, we see her up in a box with Howard (Claude Rains is introduced looking like an old-school Count, beginning the film’s sly misdirect of his character). The prince and princess looking down on their subjects have such a different energy from the one below. Not cold, but congenial and removed. She looks down longingly, wanting to be part of the ruckus but knowing she wouldn’t know how. She defines herself as belonging to the lofty box that is lacking. It is not a longing that says “why didn’t I choose that?”. It is a longing that says “why can’t I be like them?”.
Steven may love Mary, but he doesn’t really know her. At one point Mary says to him “you don’t really know me at all”. At another point Howard says to him “you don’t know her”. Mary expresses this again later on, stating “we’re practically strangers to each other”. When he receives a letter from Mary in which she breaks off the relationship, he goes to Howard and accuses him of having made her write the letter. I mean, that’s how it always is in these love stories, isn’t it? The tyrant husband holds his wife prisoner or blackmails her into staying? Hell, that’s what Robert Ryan does to Barbara Bel Geddes in Caught! But there are no conventions of the Gothic or the Doomed Romance here. Just a woman making a choice — the same choice. It doesn’t mean she won’t think and dream of Steven on lonely nights. And it doesn’t mean she’ll never stop wondering about what could have been, and there will always be a sense of something lost.
But Howard does know her, and there are untapped waters between them. Claude Rains starts out as the cuckolded husband (we are teased with riffs on his Notorious character). Then, gradually, he emerges as the film’s true soul (Steven is never afforded much perspective while Howard increasingly is). Lean and Rains fully embody Howard’s intense humiliation and betrayal as he starts to reinterpret his own feelings towards Mary. As his pain turns to rage, hers turns to disorientation. He is driven to deliver two shocking speeches in opposition to each other. She is driven to the brink by no longer belonging. It all crescendos in a spectacular whirlwind of emotional agony where absolute vulnerability and fate intervened reveal the power to reset. Steven is gone. This isn’t what we expected with who we expected. But like I said, The Passionate Friends belongs in that Daisy Kenyon category of “it’s complicated”.