Sunday, 29 August 2010

Lady in the Dark (1944)

The first word that comes to mind to describe "Lady in the Dark" is odd. So odd, that by the end of it I can't say if it's good, bad or more likely, something in between. It's the story of Liza Elliott (Ginger Rogers), a magazine editor, that suddenly feels so overwhelmed by everything that she is persuaded to see a psychologist. It's adapted from a Broadway musical by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, but it the adaptation reduces the musical numbers to three key dream sequences, playing much as a straight drama with musical moments. The film actually handles the psychology bit in a surprising modern way - and the whole process is far more believable than in "Spellbound" for instance - with the psychologist emphasing it's a slow process and showing some ethics, although there is still a lot of pop psychology (the "motive" behind all of Rogers' problems is a bit unintentionally funny).

I got the film in an Italian 6 film boxset dedicated to director Mitchell Leisen. While the other 5 were good black and white transfers, including "Remember the Night", this is an altogether different matter. It is presented in a faded Technicolor print with burnt in Italian subtitles - skin colours are a bit too greenish and several shades of dull brown and duller orange replace everything from red to yellow, including Ginger Rogers' blond hair. The reason for this, as far as I could tell from the cover, is that the film is in public domain in Italy (not sure how that works, as it's under copyright everywhere else). It's a pity as the film got an Oscar nomination for its colour cinematography.
The film's oddness comes from the fact that something (which I can't quite put my finger on) and some things don't quite work. One is the character and the casting of the leading man, in this case Ray Milland. Milland plays an advertising executive working for Rogers so unpleasantly and with such gusto that by the end I really couldn't stand him. Misogynists remarks about Rogers being a man (or eventually a lesbian, which amounts to same in 1940s cinema, but can be "cured"). It's a tough part which would need someone like Cary Grant, who could be unpleasant and appealing at the same time (e.g. "Notorious"). Of course, as much as I like him, Leisen was no Hitchcock. Ginger Rogers is ok, as is most of the cast (which includes Warner Baxter), but not memorable. Her best moment is when she realises she's not interested in the second banana. Hers is the face of someone to whom the obvious just became, well, obvious.

Another thing that didn't quite work for me were the musical numbers. They aren't bad, but they seem out-of-place and, and this may be entirely the copy I saw, they look cheap. Actually most of the sets suffered a similar fate.

Finally, this belongs to a line of films that I don't particularly like: the woman executive that all she really wants is a big strong man to take care of her and the soon she realises that the better for everyone (a particular bad example is "June Bride"). Rosalind Russell made career in the 1940s out of this, including in Leisen's own "Take a Letter, Darling". To a lesser extent, Leisen's "No Time for Love" with Claudette Colbert belongs to same strain, and perhaps its no coincidence that these were the two films preceding "Lady ..." - which to be honest is the weakest of the three. However, and this is where the "odd" comes in, the ending is not (at least to my eyes) as straightforward as it appears. (And now spoiler alert!) A few moments before the final shot, Milland's character seems to be taken control of everything much to the delight of his boss. This is even made clear as he sits on her chair and she falls into the floor. But then, he stands up (while talking) and they seem to be ending in collaboration, rather than competition, and both standing, suggesting that they both recognise each other's strengths while admitting they need the other. While for Milland's character this completely out of the blue, it still made it (for me, at least) a rewarding ending.

Despite all its shortfalls, the film held my attention, so it's obviously not all bad. Rogers's character is still a strong woman, who by the end has decided (in my eyes, anyway) she doesn't need to give up anything to have her man. And as an curious aside, it has one of the most obvious gay characters in 1940s who makes no apology for who he is. Leisen (himself gay) probably got away with this because a) it is set in a women's magazine and b) the character is a photographer.

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