Gary Giddins, “Hokum Became Him,” New York Sun, January 18, 2005
Discusses the film Carrie (1952), directed by William Wyler.
William Wyler never made a film noir, but his postwar oeuvre began with a quartet of films as relentlessly grim as any dark-alley second feature, particularly the 1952 box office disaster “Carrie,” derived from Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie.” (The appellative was dropped for fear that Americans and Brits, respectively, would think it about a nun or a nurse.) A decade earlier, Wyler had triumphed with “Mrs. Miniver,” a picture admired by Churchill and Goebbels for its value as propaganda. It quickly went the way of most propaganda, and Wyler later dismissed it as “synthetic.” During the war, he lost his hearing in one ear while flying on high-altitude bombers to shoot Air Force documentaries. He returned to Hollywood determined to avoid banal uplift and to challenge the Production Code.
Wyler was much honored for “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946), “The Heiress” (1949), and “Detective Story” (1951), which furthered his reputation for long takes, the diagrammatic staging made possible by deep-focus photography, and outstanding ensemble acting. Their gloominess was offset by stylistic bravura and reasonably positive codas. No such coda lightens “Carrie,” shot in 1950 as a fin de siècle companion to “The Heiress,” but suppressed by Paramount for two years, then released after anxious pruning (a process that replicated the initial treatment of Dreiser’s novel). Today’s viewers will find such pussyfooting inconceivable: The DVD restores a two-and-a-half-minute sequence set in a Bowery shelter, whose omission was mysteriously explained as “due to the political state of affairs in our nation.”
Audiences didn’t shun the picture because of its politics, however, but because it dealt with a subject the studios rarely broached: male menopause. Wyler had been there before, with “Dodsworth,” filmed in 1936, when he was 34 – first coming into his own and with good reason to believe in second acts. Despite the title (he couldn’t very well call it “George”), his treatment of “Sister Carrie,” adapted by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, alters the emphasis from Carrie Meeber to George Hurstwood. Though he toys, as Dreiser does not, with the possibility of a happy ending, he closes with Hurstwood shuffling off to a rented room and a gas jet, not with Carrie’s oblivious success.
The film follows Carrie to the big city, where she is hustled by Eddie Albert’s Drouet and victimized by evil labor practices (the HUAC-driven censors accepted this, but not the disclosure of homeless men and poverty). Yet from the moment we see Laurence Olivier’s Hurstwood, framed in middle-distance by the appurtenances of his pricey restaurant-saloon, the story belongs to him. The last act isn’t about Carrie leaving him; it’s about Hurstwood being left, descending into hell accompanied only by the viscous orchestrations of David Raksin’s music. The audience is allowed emotional release in the tear-jerking finale – Hurstwood asking for a handout, insensible to her love-filled eyes; Carrie offering resuscitation, insensible to the weight of his despair (we are a long way from Dreiser). But Wyler offers no comfort. The movie is a series of missed connections. Every character lies to every other character or misinterprets their motives. No one connects. Wyler not only refuses the softening of a “Showboat” or “A Star Is Born,” two of Dreiser’s more maudlin offspring; he refuses Dreiser’s piety about innocent vs. thoughtful people. There is no hope here.
Yet there is much to enjoy. Olivier is magnificent, underacting with rueful suspicion; he never once laughs and checks each smile at the gate, as though afraid to divulge too much. Jennifer Jones is surprisingly effective, once you accept that she’s a bit long in the tooth to play Dreiser’s maiden. She is, at times, awkward with Olivier – after several viewings of one scene, I’m not certain if she withholds kisses from him because Carrie is conniving or Jones is clumsy. She is at her best in the Goetzes’s exceptionally well-written “I ruined him” scene with Eddie Albert, when she can focus on her forte: obedient tear ducts. Given the ending, the film had no choice but to elevate her with a bit of sainthood.
Dreiser was the master of hotel lobbies and restaurants, and Wyler’s chamber piece honors that with scrupulously art-directed interiors. There is a lovely moment at the saloon when Hurstwood and Carrie are shown walking in deep-focus parallel paths. The exteriors, however, are undermined by sanitary soundstages. The illusion of urban decay and clamor is never captured. Chicago seems grossly under populated and Lower Manhattan – meant to show us how far George has fallen – is busy but antiseptic. (As is Jones’s makeup. The print is so sharp you can see her lip-gloss and eyeliner as she recovers from a miscarriage; her perfectly manicured nails do not indicate a great deal of dishwashing.) The director’s heart is not in the streets: It’s in the drawing rooms with his actors, and in those environs the film is compelling.
Where Dreiser sought tragedy and hit verismo, Somerset Maugham reached for irony and rang melodrama – a better fit for commercial cinema, which is partly why he remains among the most frequently adapted of writers (“Being Julia” is the latest entry). Wyler’s 1940 film, “The Letter” – taken from the Maugham play, which was taken from a Maugham short story, which was closely based on a 1911 murder in Singapore – is one of Wyler’s most durable achievements. Hokum became him, allowing him to concentrate on style for style’s sake.
As the new DVD release proves, time has been very kind to this film. From the opening nighttime pan of a rubber plantation, interrupted by a gunshot and fluttering cockatoo, and finished with an inexorable closing in on Bette Davis, who has followed her victim onto the veranda and pumped five more bullets into him, you know you are in the hands of ardent filmmakers and can only hope that they sustain the inspiration for another 90 minutes. They do. The set design by Carl Jules Weyl and Tony Gaudio’s photography belie the constrictions of the soundstage. Max Steiner’s music, as arranged by Hugo Friedhofer, is more nudging than pronounced (never a staccato blast). And the key actors are beyond cavil: Davis never gave a more measured or original performance, alternately frigid and feverish, and Herbert Marshall, his voice a great bassoon, has the effect of a damp cloth on her brow. James Stephenson’s lawyer binds them – he holds whole episodes together by his very stillness.
There is a moment in “Carrie,” when Olivier twirls his mustache in imitation of a stage roué; the material he parodies is not far removed from that of “The Letter.” To the 1911 murder Maugham had added the hoariest of 19th-century conventions, an incriminating letter, and an acquittal (the real murderess was sentenced to hang but was ultimately pardoned to die in an English asylum – not much irony there). Wyler’s version is reminiscent of D.W. Griffith’s transformation of the antiquated barnstormer “Way Down East.” It is at once a critique of and an embodiment of the gaslight thriller, so knowing in its design that it remains a remarkably vital feat of lighting, staging, acting, and cinematic invention.
Wyler toys with the cliches of melodrama, as in his use of consecutive reaction shots to punctuate disclosures. He contrasts the strengths of theater and cinema, as when he shoots Davis’s recounting of the crime from the rear, as if she were performing for an invisible audience, and then tracks away from her altogether, as only the camera can. He shoots Davis’s swelling eyes in opposition to the moon, which – call it astronomic license – is always full. He introduces Gale Sondergaard as an apparition in a car’s headlights. He draws attention to reflections in hair and on foreheads, to dislocated shadows. He portrays Davis’s attempt at corrupting her lawyer from behind the sofa on which she lies, stressing her raised left arm as the lure. Shot for shot, Wyler’s film is an elaborate feast of controlled abstractions countered by vividly grounded performances.
It is not, however, flawless. Howard Koch’s smart screenplay had to contend with the Production Code, which mandated retribution (happiness is a dead adulterer). Worse, a cop steps out of nowhere so that we may surmise that the killer’s killers will also pay the piper. The original discarded ending, included on the DVD, shows that the filmmakers were concerned that the audience might not go along with the killing of Davis unless reminded of her remorseless infidelity, forcing Koch to add the scene with the famously campy line (bannered on the DVD box), “With all my heart I still love the man I killed.” They were also obliged to change Maugham’s Chinese mistress to a “Eurasian” widow, played by Sondergaard with the rigidity of a dressmaker’s mannequin and looking more Asian than Euro. Wyler slightly overdoes the alluring moon shots and the Madame Defarge angle of Davis constantly knitting pillow lace.
No matter. Wyler followed his bleak postwar quartet with a return to uplift, spectacle, and family values, regaining his audience and his Hollywood ranking with “Roman Holiday,” “Friendly Persuasion,” “Ben Hur,” and “Funny Girl” (he returned to form and the dark side with “The Collector,” in 1965). “The Letter” is a grander entertainment than any of them, and and though it may not add up to much thematically, it seems a lot more modern as well.