THE CORPORATE ART
In The Passionate Friends, Mary loves Steven, a biologist; but feeling that possessive romantic love will hinder her development she marries banker Howard Justin, who has similar ideas. The action of the film springs from the two opposing needs of Mary’s nature; and in veering between them she almost wrecks marriage and life. The original Wells novel, which probed ideas about “free love”, has shrunk in the censorship into this somewhat trite story. The hair-trigger emotions of these elegant characters argue a leisure which can hardly be imagined today, and to me at least make the film unreal, like some anaemic rose whose petals would scatter at the first breath of fresh air. For this one cannot blame the script writer (Eric Amber), whose work seems excellent; though after congratulating the producer (Ronald Neame) for assembling so brilliant a group, one must censure him, I think, for not finding them a worthy story. But should one criticize something for not being something else?
Yes, I think so, especially when as now the interpretative artists far outclass the work interpreted; since from this dilemma comes a clash between style and content. The director here (David Lean) resembles a pianist denied the important music of the day, and that so great a director should idle in a backwater off the main tide of great cinema is infuriating. Forty years of cinema have taught us that it is the supreme art of the actual, at its best when interpreting the world we live in. Hence I think it wasteful if one of our best cinema teams has to film hothouse stories like this. Yet how brilliantly they have done it! So far as I could see there is only one real flaw – in the early flashbacks. These obviously exist to shape the film and keep the preliminary dramatic situation from straggling; but once at least it was difficult to elucidate the chronology.
The most memorable scene for me was that in which the banker discovers without arousing suspicion, an intrigue between his wife and Steven; and looking astonishingly like Somerset Maugham he plays with them, cat-like, but with appropriate, self-possessed and icy disapproval. The scene is first-rate example of film drama without music. At the beginning Mary had innocently started the gramophone, some dance music wholly opposed to the mood into which the scene was drifting, and more important, to the expectant mood of the audience. But once she realizes the trap, even though the quarrel has begun, Mary walks deliberately to the gramophone and switches it off; and the climax of the quarrel, exploding in the husband’s unexpectedly passionate outburst, makes the full impact without rhetorical stimulus. In fact it dissatisfies us with the obvious musical rhetoric underlining Steven’s distracted and hurried departure. The scene itself, though, is perfect.
The main criticism apart, The Passionate Friends will delight any admirer of exciting film making; and no one should miss it because of the commonplace story. To begin with, though, every shot is to Lean what any individual style is to its author, one is always aware of true cinema, the corporate art; of, for example, Geoffrey Foot’s smooth editing and Guy Green’s expressive lighting and photography. John Bryan’s sets, though limited in scope, are good; and Richard Addinsell produces the necessary romantic evocative score for emotional seasoning, which in general is sensibly applied. But the really discriminate use of music has never been characteristic of Lean’s group. Claude Rains as the banker is superb, and Ann Todd and Trevor Howard could hardly be bettered. To see this movie with dialogue is to wash from your mouth the taste of all the talkies with movement you have ever seen. But David Lean is still awaiting his Beethoven.
Cry of the City (director, Robert Siodmak) is a fast, exciting and presumably authentic near-documentary, in the category of The Naked City and The Kiss of Death, which tells of the escape from jail and the final bringing to justice of a loveless cop-killing crook (Richard Conte). The scene of the man hunt, grey back streets, has desolate nostalgic yet impressive horror – which the characters share. The minor ones are especially good, and in one sense all the characters are minor. Even the principal cop (Victor Mature) isn’t a star. I can still see Marty, the outcast killer, stabbing to death a crooked lawyer, and a sequence concerning a blowsy masseuse with bulging calves, a prodigious appetite and the instincts of a shark. Yet there’s a Dickensian vitality about her, as there is about much of the film, despite its melodrama and clichés. Its roots are certainly where they should be, in humanity, and you couldn’t blow this story away with a breath of fresh air.
This article was first published in March 1949 for the Federation of the Women’s Institute magazine “Home & Country”, Home Counties Edition, Volume 31, Number 3, and priced threepence.
Peter’s piece appears on page 49.