BONJOUR TRISTESSE -
with David Niven, Jean Seberg, Mylene Demongeot and Geoffrey Horne. 1958
Cool and introspective, Otto Preminger's stylish Bonjour Tristesse is one of his most understated films. Jean Seberg stars as a spoiled teenager who acts with a high-society sophistication beyond her years, and dapper David Niven is her playboy father, going through young female playmates like socks. Flitting through the French jet set and comparing conquests, they summer on the gorgeous French Riviera, where mature fashion designer Deborah Kerr enters their lives and wins Niven's heart. Seeing an end to her lifestyle, Seberg plots an end to the relationship with equal parts conniving ruthlessness and juvenile prankishness, too self-absorbed to even consider the brutal results of her actions. Told in flashback from a sleek but shadowy black-and-white Paris, the film melts into the vivid Technicolor of memory. Seberg's voiceover narration is arch, but her impish, often petulant performance is perfect, as is Niven's flippant, womanizing bachelor father (Preminger lets their curious, flirtatious intimacy hang like an unanswered question and a nervous subtext). Kerr's middle-aged working woman seems almost puritanical compared to the irrepressible travelers, but under her rules and limits lies an honest concern for a "child" who believes herself an adult. Preminger's camera prowls through the drama just removed enough to be respectful, and intimate enough to get under the characters' skin (the impeccable widescreen compositions are sadly lost to pan-and-scan videotape). Like the best of his dramas, there are no heroes or villains, only complex, flawed, achingly sympathetic characters.
THE KING AND I -
with Yul Brynner, Rita Moreno, Martin Benson and Terry Saunders. 1956
The third Rodgers & Hammerstein Broadway hit to go before the cameras, The King and I boasts a career-making performance from Yul Brynner, repeating his stage triumph as the titular monarch and proving to moviegoers that bald can be beautiful. It's Brynner's proud king that provides the fulcrum to the plot, and it's Brynner himself, with his piercing gaze and graceful physicality, that demands our attention. The story line, adapted from an earlier, nonmusical stage hit, follows widowed English teacher Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr, in an Oscar nominated role) to her new posting as tutor to the Siamese king's formidable mob of children. The collision of East and West affords its winning mixture of drama and humor, and the warm friendship that grows between the king and the patrician teacher provides a poignant, unfulfilled romance between the two wary protagonists. Into this framework, the composers insert a superb score, echoing Asian motifs, as well as a bouquet of lovely songs including Hello, Young Lovers, Shall We Dance, and two ensemble pieces for Anna and the royal children (Getting to Know You and I Whistle a Happy Tune) that suggest prototypes for Rodgers & Hammerstein's latest hit, The Sound of Music. For this production, 20th Century-Fox lavished stereophonic sound, widescreen cinematography, intricate production design, and stunning sets. But the glorious music is reason enough to watch.
THE END OF THE AFFAIR -
with Van Johnson, John Mills, Peter Cushing and Michael Goodliffe. 1955
For its first minutes, The End of the Affair looks like it's going to be a standard "two tortured souls who know they shouldn't be having an affair but are going keep on doing it anyway" movie. Fortunately, it gets more interesting than that. Van Johnson plays Maurice Bendrix, an American author in wartime England. While attending a cocktail party of noble civil servant Henry Miles (Peter Cushing), he accidentally catches a glimpse of Henry's wife, Sarah (Deborah Kerr), kissing another man. Fascinated, he arranges to meet her, and the two start an affair. Maurice, unable to get Sarah's previous infidelity out of his mind, gets clingy and suspicious; Sarah tells him they can't meet anymore and goes back to Henry, and that's that. Or is it? Maurice is unable to let go of Sarah, and as he investigates he finds out there was far more to the end of their affair than he thought. Deborah Kerr has by far the most difficult job of the film, playing several layers of deception as the coolly efficient civil servant's wife with more than one unexpected passion hiding just below the surface. Peter Cushing also does quietly good work, touchingly playing what could have been a thankless wronged husband role. Indeed, most of the usual standards are fleshed out in surprising ways in this strange and earnest little movie. Like its heroine, The End of the Affair takes a grim surface story and gradually reveals the unexpected passions underneath. ( Based on the novel by Graham Green and remade in 1999 with Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes. )
HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON -
with Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum. 1957
If a war movie can be lovely, this is it. John Huston directed this touching World War II story about a Marine ( Robert Mitchum ) stranded with a nun ( Deborah Kerr, in an Oscar nominated role ) on a Pacific island overrun by Japanese. After initial antagonism, the resulting kinship between the two characters is human and civil, even after Mitchum's grunt understandably falls in love with his unlikely companion. The action scenes, in which the pair works together to stay ahead of the enemy, are first-rate. The actors have never been better, and Huston's perennial theme about destiny's denial of our dreams is achingly clear in this essentially two-person drama.
FILMS IN REVIEW
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison invites comparison with THE AFRICAN QUEEN not only because John Huston directed both films, but because of somwhat similar subject matter.
In THE AFRICAN QUEEN a cockney skipper of a dilapidated river launch ( a role in which Humphrey Bogart won an Academy Award ) rescued a spinster missionary from German East Africa during World War I. In HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON, Mr. Allison, a US Marine, washed ashore on a Pacific island during War II, discovers the only other inhabitant is a nun.
The basic flaw in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is a sterile situation. The two oddly-assorted characters in The African Queen reconciled their differences, but in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison there is no character development whatsoever. The nun (Deborah Kerr) is unswervingly steadfast, and the respect with which the Marine (Robert Mitchum) treats her wavers only once, when he is drunk, and we don't really believe he regards her as a woman even then.
This lack of conflict is so static John Huston is hard put to it to hold our interest. He manages a little humor and suspense via a turtle hunt and a life-risking raid by Mitchum on the food supply of some Japanese troops who arrive on the island. But otherwise it's all on the superficially pious side.
Mitchum does well as a man of action whose only interest in spiritual matters is what a none too able script gives him. Deborah Kerr, as usual, is properly sexless.
ANNE F. MURPHY
The King and I. The exotic set