Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Remember the Night (1940)

“Remember the Night” is a romantic comedy, and the first pairing of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. She’s a thief caught stealing a few days before Christmas. He’s the prosecutor who wants to put her jail and gets the trial to be adjourned till after the New Year. Only he gets guilty and ends up spending the whole Christmas period with her.

The film is simply delightful. It’s well directed, well acted, well paced. I’m surprised it’s not really as well known as other comedies of the period. I think it’s one of Preston Sturges best scripts along with “The Lady Eve” (1941) which he himself directed, also starring Barbara Stanwyck. In reality, her character in Leisen’s film is a first draft (but what a draft!) for her character in Sturges’ masterpiece. Fred MacMurray is at his best as a romantic leading man, and his chemistry with Stanwyck amazing. The same chemistry that both actors would take a step further that less than five years later, as the so sexy and so deadly protagonists in Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity”.

Mitchell Leisen, the director, is mostly remembered for allegedly been the reason Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges started directing – they didn’t appreciate his treatments of their scripts. Thankful as I am that both men turned into directors, it’s not a fair assessment. Wilder’s comments on him were always harsh, stating that he gave more importance to costumes and décor (Leisen was a former art director/set designer) than to substance (i.e. his script). For Wilder the last straw was during the filming of “Hold Back the Dawn” (1941); for Sturges, the previous year’s “Remember the Night”. Having seen both films, I think it’s more of a case of the victors rewriting history.

Leisen was a director who did very good stuff if the material (and the actors) he had to work with was good. And that shows in films like “Hands across the Table”, “Midnight” and “Hold Back the Dawn” (by the way, I don’t like “Easy Living”…). If the material was ok but not as good, he couldn’t improve much on it – for instance in “The Mating Season”. So yes, he wasn’t Wilder or Sturges, but he was far from a fool obsessed with decors. And there’s suddenly an interest in his work. There were some retrospectives in the 2007 Edinburgh Film Festival and last summer in the French Cinematheque. And little by little, his films are coming out on DVD – like “Remember the Night”.

On the DVD: At the moment this film is only part of an Italian 4 disc DVD box set “Cofanetto Mitchell Leisen” which includes this, “Midnight”, “Easy Living”, “Arise my Love”, “No Time for Love” and “Lady in the Dark” (there are 2 films in discs 2 and 3). The quality of all the films is quite good, with some restoration work done to them – except for “Lady in the Dark”. This is a faded Technicolor copy, with Italian subtitles burnt in, probably taken directly from an archive copy somewhere. It’s a pity – especially cause they could have included “Hold Back the Dawn” or “To Each his Own”.

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