After seeing Borzage’s Depression drama Man’s Castle, I was keen to see more of his pre-Code work – and, having now seen A Farewell to Arms twice, must say I think it is a masterpiece. I’ll admit that I don’t remember Hemingway’s novel very well and am not sure how much resemblance the film bears to the book (not much, according to Hemingway himself, who was unimpressed). But, if you don’t worry about comparisons with the printed page, the film itself is powerful – with great performances from both Gary Cooper and top-billed Helen Hayes, Oscar-winning cinematography by Charles Lang, and a blend of wild romance and dark, unsentimental depictions of war and suffering.
When seeking out this film, it pays to be careful which version you watch. There are a lot of public domain DVDs around containing a censored version from a later cinema release, cutting out 10 minutes of footage, including two sexual encounters which are vital to the plot. I ended up watching the film in this mutilated form to start with, and was confused by how much it jumped around in the early scenes – and also by the fact that some conversations made no sense. However, when I looked up some information about the movie, all became clear. I realised that it was in fact 89 minutes long, and what I had seen was a 79-minute version cut to remove the pre-Code content.
Looking at still photographs from this movie, set in post-war Paris and loosely adapted from a short story by Ernest Hemingway, I was expecting film noir. The fact that it stars great actor John Garfield, opposite French actress Micheline Presle (billed here as Prelle), added to this expectation.
However, although some scenes do have that moody, brooding quality, and the shadowy black-and-white camerawork adds to this, the film as a whole is a strange mixture of noir and sentimentality. Director Jean Negulesco and screenwriter Casey Robinson both made some great films, but in this one they seem to be caught between two stools, with flashes of brilliance in between scenes which unashamedly manipulate the emotions. As many reviews point out, the main plot is almost like a reworking of The Champ, moved from the boxing ring to the racecourse.
One of the biggest attractions of this film is the footage showing Paris in 1950. By coincidence, I’ve just seen the new film Julie and Julia, which is also set in the city around this period. But the real black-and-white footage of the post-war bars and streets has a battered quality to it which a movie made in 2009 can’t quite recapture, although that is not to say anything against Nora Ephron’s film, which I liked very much.
Continuing my current Howard Hawks obsession, I’ve just re-watched one of his most famous films, the one where Bogart and Bacall met. The chemistry between them is just as sizzling as I’d remembered it from watching the film years ago – but what really struck me this time, after submerging myself in Hawks in recent weeks, is how much the movie has his stamp on it.
Bogart and Bacall
The movie is loosely based on a famous Ernest Hemingway novel (I’ve read it many years ago but don’t remember much about it) and has a screenplay by Jules Furthman and William Faulkner, but the plot construction feels very Hawksian, all the same, and there are several lines which are similar or even identical to those in his previous films. “I don’t think I’ll ever shout at anyone again,” a line spoken wearily by a wife who has just faced losing her husband, is one of these, almost identical to a line in Ceiling Zero in a slightly different context.
The central romance plot is similar to that in Only Angels Have Wings, as a woman turns up by chance in a turbulent setting, falls for a stranger, and stays around to see whether they have a chance together even when he tries to ensure that she leaves. Here, the setting is Martinique under the rule of Vichy France, where Harry Morgan (Bogart) sails a fishing boat for hire, but becomes fed up with his current client’s refusal to pay the money he owes. (In the book, Harry made his living ferrying contraband between Florida and Cuba.)