Dodsworth (1936, William Wyler)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

A woman discusses with her illicit lover the contents of a letter sent by her husband, who’s staying in their home overseas. She complains that the conversation has left her cold, ruined her evening, that the letter brings too many things to light that she’d prefer to forget. Her suave new man strides to her, reaches over and lights a match, setting the letter ablaze in a not-so-subtly erotic gesture. She lets it go and it drifts into the wind past them, unnoticed, gracefully spinning through the air until it settles on the ground in a final balletic plunge. It’s just a quick scene, almost nothing is made of it, except that the very inclusion of such a detail, growing out of a quick maneuver of hands, suggests that small moments like this mean everything in the story being told, and it proves to be so.

Dodsworth is the sort of movie that closes the gap between the past and present. Among even the most universally beloved of classic films, few can be named that retain so much of their vitality and feel as present as though they were shot last year. Part of this agelessness springs from simplicity: it’s a movie about people, specifically a married couple whose relationship is tested during a long planned-for vacation abroad. Yes, these are people of considerable means — he a retired automobile tycoon, she an heiress — but this gap too is one that the film means to shrink or even ignore, since the bare essence of their emotional inner lives is its concern, and therefore ours. Regardless of background or outlook, people and their fickle, worn-down hearts are the one thing whose relevance can most assuredly remain eternal. Dodsworth takes its settings, characters and basic themes from a Sinclair Lewis novel meant to satirize bourgeois values, and this subversive essence does rear its head here and there (if you want to see what a straight adaptation of the idea might have looked like, get thee to Hitchcock’s Rich and Strange), but director William Wyler — seldom mentioned as a Hollywood humanist alongside Capra and Borzage, but maybe he should be — could no more reduce his tragic marrieds to stereotype or scorn than Jean Renoir could do the same with the hopeless idiots populating Rules of the Game.

The unhappy couple’s attempt at a long second honeymoon is approached with affable enough enthusiasm by post-midlife crisis former workaholic Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) but it’s clear that the prime mover of the trip is his often outwardly insecure, shallow wife (Ruth Chatterton), openly terrified of aging and obsessed with the appearance of high society, running against her husband’s vision of the two of them as “hicks.” As soon as they hit the cruise ship, she begins to stray and initiate a test of his faith, determination, love, his need to understand and take care of her. It sounds simplistic, a tale told a thousand times, and even unbalanced and unfair, but the intricacies in the story grow with every minute as triangles develop and disintegrate, emotions ebb and flow, and wounds grow deeper. All the while, we are given a depressing but painfully real glimpse at an extended relationship that has grown inoperable, all the tangled webs of emotions and dread and buried happiness and unspoken secrets.

One-sided though it may sound, all of this — aside from the healthy amount provided by the great Lewis, screenwriter Sidney Howard and director Wyler — is detectable in the face, personality, voice, full expression of Huston, who gives what must count as one of the great movie performances of all time. Like Jimmy Stewart, Huston acts with every bone in his body, every trace of a movement, every expression on his face, every tinge of hope and doubt in his voice. Huston performed the role of Dodsworth on stage for years, and yet the movie reveals things that could never have been visible in a play: His eyes, every physical nuance he adds to every line, it all seems to serve an ideal of acting that becomes so complete, almost eerily real. He comes across so much as a person — and hardly a perfect one; he, too, begins to stray, and we’re given to understand that for all his faithfulness, he was somewhat neglectful of his wife’s needs when she was making a home for him — that his command and identification with the viewer are absolute.

It’s much easier to miss the intelligence and depth of Chatterton in her much more thankless role, but repeat viewings clarify that Mrs. Dodsworth too is a strongly defined character; watch how Wyler — who coaxed a more sympathetic performance out of Chatterton than she initially wanted to give — focuses on her pain and her obvious need to break out of the societal roles that have been set for her. She can be faulted as a one-dimensionally bitchy and shrill character whose attitude stretches credibility; but over time one becomes aware that she too is intelligently observed, particularly if you’ve known someone (of any gender, mind) like her… someone clinging to a phony illusion of permanent youth, or just someone whose attachment to status leaves every kind of true, lasting love behind. In most of the couple’s arguments, while one is naturally drawn to Huston’s clearheaded responsibility and open kindness, we can feel ourselves sympathizing with both of them, even as Sam’s plight will become ever more painfully familiar to anyone who has ever dealt with a partner’s infidelity. Part of the film’s point, in contrast to the novel’s, is the universal truth that even a narcissist deserves love — and we watch as her own penchant for criticism and complaining rub off on and transform her husband into a doddering old fool. We watch as he gives her one second chance after another, watch the nighttime quarrels horrific in their carefully observed honesty, and we understand his love, and his faith, because we understand how he is both attuned to the nuances of her character and blind to the detrimental effect she has on him. And we are particularly heartbroken by the rebuttal she receives when she attempts to marry a younger man with a title (rejected with the devastating words of his mother, played unforgettably by Maria Ouspenskaya); we may even feel slight regret for the way Dodsworth must finally leave her behind, but we also know that — like so many relationships that run their course, or that may not really have had one in the first place — it is time.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect such a relatively moody (if hardly humorless) drama as Dodsworth to find a way to draw cheers, but Mary Astor’s performance as fellow cruise ship passenger Edith Cortright generates every feeling of real human closeness and warmth absent from the central marriage; her easy camaraderie with Sam blossoms out of her being written as a three-dimensional person with a palpable past, future and energy that are not reliant on any man’s placement in her life. She’s a complete person, and Sam’s easiness around her is obvious and telling. There are two remarkable outlying moments in Astor’s performance: once when her compassion for the Dodsworths leads her to try and persuade Fran not to cheat on Sam, to no avail; and later, when her own emotions and her slowly brewing love for Sam lead her to deliver a passionate speech to try and convince him to stay with her, to convince him essentially of something he already knows (his sense of duty and commitment start to get the better of him, here). Her observations of Sam’s character in this moment are so cutting and such a wizened, believable testament of genuine affection that to hear such things expressed, without fear and in a state of true connection and comfort, would be enough to cause a viewer to tear up even if there was not the suggestion of a new love backing it. Rarely has such an undiluted moment of kindness, however desperate, found such direct expression in a Hollywood film.

That realism is one of the great strong points of Dodsworth, certainly in terms of character development and the frequently shattering dialogue, makes Wyler’s highly stylized and frantic direction — heavy but not reliant on impressive long shots covering entire rooms — all the more intriguing; it’s not at all confined to stage origins or to “photographs of people talking.” During one of the arguments, his camera moves back and forth as Mrs. Dodsworth speaks in a bruising confessional scene that foretells the final monologues in Paris, Texas. He and cinematographer Rudolph Maté (Carl Theodor Dreyer’s right-hand man in a past life) also explore interestingly artificial compositions and work to make them seem logical, as in several moments when he very pointedly places three characters in a literal triangle. Wyler would later further the idea of shooting romantic films like The Best Years of Our Lives and Wuthering Heights as if they were suspense thrillers, with a chilling concentration on the odd menace in the inanimate as well as innovative use of deep focus. The juxtaposition simply adds to the poignance and the feeling of emotional outpouring by the time the movie leaves us.

Movies this “adult,” low-key and intelligent are rare in the mainstream today, as nearly every review of Dodsworth ever written has pointed out, but one important fact missing from that statement is that movies this “adult” were just as rare in 1930s Hollywood. Across the studio films of this period, there are few occasions in which we watch a husband make idle chatter with his wife while he takes off his pants, or that really convey the feeling of wandering through months of one’s life completely alone, or that allow us to see entire years’ worth of feelings and resentments change, lift or revise themselves with small, silent movements in actors’ bodies and eyes. The film’s heartfelt exploration of a fraying marriage is not “fun” in any conventional sense, and it makes no concessions to comfort or to any sense of glamour, despite being focused almost exclusively on very rich people, as if to reassure the Depression-era audience that those with the ability to loaf comfortably suffered equally from interpersonal unhappiness. Strangely, however, it is almost cathartic in its sheer pleasure and triumph, and in the sense it communicates that even in the drab world that belongs to both the film and to us, love actually can make its way out into the open somehow, and can save a lonely life for good.

[Expanded from a review originally posted in 2007.]

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