Monday, December 26, 2005


This well-regarded but hard-to-find movie is most assuredly not feel-good holiday fare. It's a downbeat film noir which begins on a miserable, stormy Christmas Eve and ends on a less stormy but quite grim Christmas night. Despite the many Christmas trappings during the film's first 20 minutes, it has an appropriately dark look throughout, even in a scene set at a cathedral during Midnight Mass. Even more so than in the average 40's Production Code film, an awful lot of the narrative and characterizations are oblique and reading (or seeing) between the lines is needed for it all to make sense. We begin as new military school graduate Dean Harens, heading off to San Francisco on Christmas furlough to get married, receives a telegram from his intended telling him she's up and married someone else. Harens decides to go on to SF, seemingly to wreck some kind of revenge, but during a ferocious storm, his plane is waylaid to New Orleans where he has to stay the night. A friendly reporter (Richard Whorf) takes the hurt and lonely kid to a night spot which is probably supposed to do double duty as a whorehouse, though of course they could not have made that crystal clear back then. The madam (Gladys George) sets the kid up with Deanna Durbin, a sad-eyed singer, and she asks him to go to Midnight Mass with her. She breaks down crying during "Adeste Fideles" and afterwards, at a late-night diner (and later in his hotel room), she tells him her sad story. In flashback, we see Durbin meet fellow music buff Gene Kelly at a symphony concert. They hit it off and soon he takes her home to meet mother, Gale Sondergaard, a former aristocrat who has hit some bad times. The mother is almost desperately happy that Kelly has shown an interest in Durbin--it seems he's "weak" and irresponsible, and she hopes that between them, they can straighten him out. After they marry, things work for a while, but one night, he kills a bookie and, despite the mother's best attempts, Kelly is caught and sent to jail, which is where he is now. Durbin and Harens part Christmas morning, and Harens decides to leave well enough alone and not confront his former finacee, but just as he is set to leave New Orleans that night, he hears that Kelly has escaped prison. He heads out to the club and is a witness to the final scene with Kelly, waving a gun at Durbin as the police close in.

Durbin is known primarily as a frothy teen star of middling musicals for Universal and many critics say she didn't have the chops for the lead here. I have never seen her in any other film, so I have no preconceptions; I think she seems a bit lightweight for a noir femme fatale, but her casting was certainly not a fatal mistake. In the beginning, she does look appropriately beaten down by life, though she comes off more like a sad waitress than a hooker. Kelly is good playing against type as a smiling, neurotic bad guy, and Sondergaard is even better as a mother from hell. Some critics note the undertones of incest and homosexuality that are present; I certainly caught the weird incestuous tinges in the reciprocated mother-son fixation, but the gay subtext is not as obvious; the only reference I caught was the mentioning of his "weakness" and the mother telling Durbin that, "between us, we will make him strong." The narrative structure is unnecessarily convoluted: the first flashback at the diner shows Kelly coming home to Durbin the night of the murder, and the rest of their story, beginning and end, is told in a second flashback. The shots of the cathedral during Midnight Mass are impressive, and are echoed in the later shots of the concert hall where Kelly and Durbin meet. Harens is OK in what is essentially the role of a passive listener, and Whorf is even better as the reporter who winds up playing a surprisingly large role in the narrative. Based on a Somerset Maugham story, though apparently the details of the characters have been changed greatly for the film. For some reason, this has never been officially released on video which is a shame, especially for noir fans.

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