The Macomber Affair

There is nothing else than now. There is neither yesterday, certainly, nor is there any tomorrow. How old must you be before you know that? There is only now, and if now is only two days, then two  days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion. This is how you live a life in two days. And if you stop complaining and asking for what you never will get, you will have a good life. A good life is not measured by any biblical span.
Ernest Hemingway

Matters of life and death loom large in the writings of Hemingway, those two certainties which all of us know and which underpin philosophy, religion, and, of course, art. The Macomber Affair (1947) could be referred to as a drama based on one of those love triangles so beloved of storytellers from time immemorial. I’ve seen it spoken of in those terms and while this aspect is not only present but also pivotal in the development of the narrative, I do not believe it represents the core theme of the story. Instead the film is concerned with the late and brief flowering of one character’s manhood, although I think the ending, reportedly added in order to avoid falling foul of the production code, detracts from this to an extent.

It begins with an airplane swooping ominously down from an inky black sky to land at Nairobi, down to earth and down to the unpleasant business of tidying up after a death. The dead man in question is one Francis Macomber (Robert Preston), a wealthy type  who had been on a safari up country in the company of his wife Margot (Joan Bennett) and a hunter Robert Wilson (Gregory Peck). That plane, with its grim cargo of tension and guilt, brings them all back to offer explanations and justifications. As Wilson sits down to complete the necessary official report required for the inquest the story segues into the long flashback sequence which occupies most of the running time. It tells of the meeting between Francis Macomber and Wilson, how the former makes a deal for a hunting trip for himself and his wife. That the relationship of the Macombers is strained to say the least becomes ever more obvious as the trip progresses, and the needling and provocations bubble close to the surface. With Margot making eyes at Wilson and Francis sweating over something other than the heat, the  professional hunter finds himself pressed from all directions. Everything comes to a head over the  stalking and shooting of a lion, a key moment where Macomber shows his true colors to his wife, to his guide and to himself, and the primary color happens to be yellow. It’s the effect of that incident on all concerned, but principally on Macomber himself, that shapes the rest of the tale. Sure the aforementioned triangle gains in significance but the point of it all is the accommodation a man must make with himself, a confrontation of soul and conscience which leads to fulfillment.

The last time  I looked at a Hemingway sourced movie (The Sun Also Rises, which was featured last October) I, as well as others, commented on the nature of that adaptation and how faithful it was to the original novel. The Macomber Affair was taken from the short story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, and the script which came to the screen through the combined efforts of Casey Robinson, Frank Arnold and Seymour Bennett sticks pretty close to what Hemingway put down on paper. There are some changes to the structure, the positioning and duration of the flashback, and a prologue and epilogue which not only frame the narrative but also see a shift in how the Macombers are presented and thus how the theme of the story is presented. By adding the backstory of the ill-starred couple via the coda the movie seeks to flesh out, humanize, explain and perhaps justify the actions of Margot. This allows the story to end on a redemptive, restorative note, with Margot moving towards the realization of a personal truth, and that is something which is certainly in keeping with the spirit of Hemingway in general.

Yet, at the same time, by pushing the character and the story in this direction, the script dilutes much of the meaning that was supposed to come from the earlier epiphany experienced by Francis. That, not just some macho posturing over the conquest of fear, but the author’s characteristic view of life and death, the eternal and inseparable relationship between those states and of the human condition itself, is undermined. Hemingway’s affinity for hunters, sportsmen and matadors suggests one who feels that the living of a life is only really possible not merely by confronting death but by flirting with it and indeed embracing it. This is an uncomfortable philosophy but it can be detected in much of the writer’s work.

And this is what the story is  about; gaining mastery over and the subsequent banishment of fear is there to be sure, but what’s even more important is capturing the spirit of living, a state which can only be achieved by a forthright communion with one’s atavistic fears. Hemingway’s story sees Francis Macomber reach this place and promptly expire, the purpose of his whole existence therefore fulfilled. This happens in the movie too of course, but the light  in which the character is subsequently cast in order to facilitate the redemptive epilogue is shaded much darker. One could argue that this adds complexity but I remain unsure about that – is the end result muddle rather than complexity? I cannot decide just now but another viewing somewhere down the road may clarify the matter in my mind.

Zoltan Korda’s full list of credits as director isn’t extensive, and the number of movies he made in Hollywood only runs to a half a dozen or so, with The Macomber Affair coming towards the end of that period.  It benefits from its origin as a short story and the pace is correspondingly brisk, with a smooth blend of exterior shooting (Mexico standing in for the African locations) and indoor studio work. The last piece posted on this site featured a score by Miklós Rózsa and his work on The Macomber Affair is another characteristically evocative example, complementing the tense passions which are played out on screen.

Gregory Peck is said to have been very enthusiastic about this project and it’s fair to say his work on it reflects that. I’ve heard criticism of his supposed lack of expressiveness in the past but I feel that’s often used as an artificial stick to beat those actors who tended towards restrained and internalized performances. That’s how I’m inclined to see Peck, and his low key approach is a good fit for this introspective Hemingway character. Joan Bennett could do little wrong in the 1940s as far as I’m concerned, her films with Fritz Lang being highlights. I’ve mentioned the course of her character’s development above and its effect on the tone of the picture, and I think it lends a slightly uneven quality to her performance too. That’s not to say she does anything much  wrong but the femme fatale aspects of the part, and they are strong in the text, are both watered down and rendered vaguely confusing due to the needs imposed by the ultimate resolution. It still works, but the writing makes it harder. Finally, Robert Preston, whose long and hugely varied career stands as a testament to his versatility, is fine as the hollow man at the center of the story, starting out as (to borrow from Raymond Chandler) what might be referred to as a juvenile at the art of living, getting across the essential brittleness that accompanies his emptiness before visibly growing into full manhood for the duration of his short happy life.

To the best of my knowledge, The Macomber Affair has not been given an official release anywhere to date. This is a situation I can only hope is rectified sooner rather than later. Yes, I have some reservations about the script choices but the positives clearly override those. All told, this is a very good film which continues to be undeservedly neglected.

The Sun Also Rises

Adaptation, moving from one medium to another, has been a feature of moviemaking since the earliest days, and it’s always been fraught with difficulties. Shifting a theatrical production from the stage to the screen ought to be a reasonably smooth procedure, after all drama is drama, right? Well, not always. What captivates in the theater can all too easily appear static and restrictive on the screen. Yet this is as nothing compared to the potential pitfalls of the literary adaptation, and the more famous or well-regarded the source material, the greater the chance of a negative reaction. This is understandable – authors decry the debasement of their work, the simplifications imposed, and readers express dismay at the excision of cherished passages or, worse yet, casting decisions that make a nonsense of the images they’ve been carrying around in their minds. In short, a screenwriter with a  book to adapt can be forgiven for seeing himself (or herself) on a hiding to nothing. The Sun Also Rises (1957) is based on what might well be Hemingway’s best book and it doesn’t seem to have made too many people happy. The author reportedly derided it and the screenwriter Peter Viertel disliked it. I’m not really sure what the critical consensus is but I know I always enjoyed the movie. If the book was about dreams and desires that were doomed to failure, flirtations and affairs that could only ever be imitations of what the protagonists wanted or needed, a paean to the beauty and tragedy of what can never be, then I reckon the movie, because of rather than in spite of all its flaws, might just be as good an adaptation as anyone could ever hope to make.

The Lost Generation: Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Paris, art, passion and a massive collective hangover after years of pointless slaughter seguing into a decade of apparent aimlessness, where creativity was the only antidote available to a creeping despair. Jake Barnes (Tyrone Power) is a product of all this, surrounded by artists and assorted dilettantes, wunderkinds and wasters. He is in some ways the most directionless of them all, a newspaperman who never returned home after the war and probably never will. The scars of conflict run deep in his case, rendering him impotent and thus consumed by apathy and resignation. He’s an observer of the hedonism and excess, central to it all by acquaintance yet peripheral by necessity. It’s through his eyes that the viewer sees the story unfold: first in the Parisian nightspots where he reacquaints himself with the aristocratic Lady Brett Ashley (Ava Gardner) – in his words, a drunk and a drifter – and just about tolerates the painfully self-aware Robert Cohn (Mel Ferrer); and then later in Pamplona for the fiesta, where Brett’s fiancé the dissipated Mike Campbell (Errol Flynn) meets up with them all. The whole thing amounts to a journey of discovery, where a group of desperate people are gradually force to confront the reality that, through ill-fortune or maybe just the vagaries of fate, none of them can ever hope to capture the love or personal fulfillment they yearn for. Yes, the sun will rise on another day but it’s a chill dawn that signals a world moving further away from their grasp.

The entire second act is played out during the height of the fiesta, with Mexican locations doubling for Pamplona. As the relationships become ever more tangled and the jealousies, flirtations and frustrations grow in intensity to match the progress of the fiesta the one constant in the background holding the group together is the Corrida. Hemingway was fascinated by bullfighting, writing Death in the Afternoon to address his passion for it. My own take on that aspect is that it was fueled, as were so many of his themes and concerns, by the reaction to those wartime years that left the characters of The Sun Also Rises adrift in the world. Much is made of the nobility and honesty of man confronting the overwhelming power of nature head on, of its spectacle and theatricality. It feels like an attempt to juxtapose this grand theater of death with the mindless mass slaughter he had experienced. It is as though his attitude to living and, maybe even more important in his case, dying is shaped by it; there appears to be a need to find some order and formality to it all and thus achieve some spiritual accommodation with himself and perhaps with the world in general.

As I said above, Hemingway expressed dissatisfaction with the adaptation, much to producer Darryl F Zanuck’s disgust, although it’s been suggested he may not even have seen it. Screenwriter Peter Viertel wasn’t happy with how it all turned out either, complaining about the decision to shoot in Mexico rather than Spain. Frankly, I don’t think that makes a lot of difference to the finished movie and it certainly isn’t something this viewer would count as a weakness. He also seems to have had some issues with the casting, but he’s not alone in that and it’s something I’ll come to later. Are there changes to what Hemingway had put down on paper thirty years before? Yes of course, but again my own feeling is that these aren’t of a magnitude to trouble me, and I think it’s necessary to come to terms with the fact that a shift to a different medium is always going to result in changes for a range of practical reasons. What’s important is to respect and appreciate a work on its own terms, not in relation to where it came from, not what we the audience feel it should be, not even what the original creator wanted. Ultimately, one can only evaluate the worth of a piece of art on the basis of what it is.

Henry King’s direction is as assured as ever, transitioning smoothly from  scene to scene and on into each distinct act. The CinemaScope image is well used by him in the scenes illustrating the crowded and bustling nature of the fiesta but what’s critical is his ability to maintain the required sense of intimacy when the main players interact – the bar and bistro scenes, the pivotal bedroom scenes where everyone retreats for rest but where personal revelations are made and souls are frequently bared, and of course the two key moments with Brett and Jake sharing the back seats of cars. Those are the moments where King’s lens brings the focus onto the principals, where they and their jumble of emotions dominate that big screen to the exclusion of all else.

As for the casting, I’ve seen comments before to the effect that the movie was miscast with a central group who were too old for the parts they were playing. This is undeniable and some of them look very shopworn indeed, although again I’ve never considered it a drawback. It’s been many years now since I read Hemingway’s novel but I do recall thinking that here were a collection of people whose youth had been stripped away by the horrors of combat, who had been forcibly aged beyond their years. Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn do look tired but their characters have been badly bruised by life so that’s not an issue as far as I’m concerned.

Power gets across the introversion, bitterness and only half concealed impatience of Jake, his surface affability appearing thin and brittle at times. Ava Gardner is fine too as the unfulfilled beauty, a woman who ought to have it all but who has fallen foul of a piece of rotten ill-fortune by loving the one man who cannot satisfy her needs. The substitutes she flits restlessly around are a disappointing selection: Mel Ferrer’s emotional immaturity and self-absorption is easy to despise and Errol Flynn’s decayed swashbuckler can only ever be a temporary  distraction. And it’s a superb performance by Flynn, a brutally honest portrayal of self-destruction. The sparkle is still there and the charm too but there’s a desperate sense of regret that can’t fail to touch one and I doubt the screen has ever seen a finer display of ragged dignity. Eddie Albert provides a happy-go-lucky prop for Flynn, and Juliette Greco, who just recently left us, is impressively insouciant in a small part. It seems that few people were keen on Robert Evans as the bullfighter who captivates Gardner, prompting Zanuck’s famous “the kid stays in the picture” remark. To be honest, I don’t think he adds a lot – he does have a certain gauche quality that is partially endearing but I’m not sure there’s the kind of magnetism about him that would give rise to an obsession in a character like Brett.

The Sun Also Rises has always looked strong on DVD; I had the old UK disc for many years and thought it looked fine but I was tempted to pick up the the Blu-ray over the summer when I noticed it going cheap.  Unsurprisingly, it looks even better in high definition and there are some nice supplements to add value, including a commentary track, an audio interview with Henry King,  a featurette on the making of the movie with contributions from Peter Viertel among others, and one on Hemingway adaptions in general.  All in all then, I feel that despite the reservations some have expressed regarding casting choices, locations, and changes from the original text, that the movie holds up well. If there are imperfections, and I’m not sure some of those are as damaging as they’re alleged to be, then that’s perhaps appropriate for a film about characters who are themselves less than perfect.

The Killers

I did something wrong…once.

So says the Swede (Burt Lancaster) as he lies in bed bereft of all hope, and calmly awaits his end. I love that scene near the beginning of the 1946 version of The Killers. It is one of the great moments of film noir and says so much about the genre – if you can even call it a genre. A good deal of its bleak power comes from the fact that it seems to run contrary to all normal human instincts. If someone were to burst into your room and breathlessly inform you that a couple of mean-looking hitmen had just rolled into town with the express aim of rubbing you out, most people would take the opportunity to make tracks fast. But Lancaster just remains prone in the shadows and delivers that line in the detached tone of a man already dead; when fate pays that last call there’s no ducking out.

Robert Siodmak’s film takes Ernest Hemingway’s short story (and it’s a very short story) and uses it merely as the jumping off point. The rest of the movie follows insurance investigator Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) as he tries to find out why the Swede ended up in a small New Jersey town waiting passively to greet a hail of bullets. The story is revealed by a succession of characters who had known the Swede, and a number of flashbacks gradually piece together all the events that brought about his demise. The Swede starts off as a medium grade fighter who, after breaking his hand and ending his career, begins the slow descent into the criminal underworld. This culminates in a payroll heist, the aftermath of which leads to the eventual downfall of just about everybody involved. The character of the Swede is basically a good-natured oaf whose desire for easy money allows him to be dazzled and duped by the grasping and predatory Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). In a sense the whole film is as much about Kitty as anyone else; as we see her manipulations provide the catalyst for the betrayals that litter the story.

The Killers marked the screen debut of Burt Lancaster and his tough vulnerability is shown to good effect in the movie. There’s enough innocence in the Swede for you to genuinely sympathise with him and despair at the big lug’s stupidity as Kitty plays him for the ultimate sucker. Ava Gardner’s Kitty gets the classic femme fatale intro; we first see her as the Swede does – seductively clad in black satin and vamping for all she’s worth in a night club. Her character is rotten all the way through – effortlessly hooking the smitten Swede, playing the gang off against each other, and finally, tearfully begging a dying man to save her neck by damning himself. The role of Edmond O’Brien is to offer perspective and lead the viewer through the labyrinth of deceit; he’s really the linking device between all the small episodes that make up the whole. O’Brien’s own guide along the way is police lieutenant Lubinsky (Sam Levene from the Thin Man movies) and there is good support from gang members Albert Dekker, Jack Lambert and Jeff Corey. However, two of the most memorable turns come from William Conrad and Charles McGraw as Max and Al, the killers of the title. Their roles don’t extend much beyond the first ten minutes of the film, but those are ten truly magical minutes. They get some of the choicest dialogue (and deliver it perfectly) as they simultaneously mock and menace the occupants of the Brentwood lunch counter.

Robert Siodmak made some of the best noirs of the forties and I feel The Killers is his standout work. This is one of those films where plot, direction, characterization and photography all seem to come together harmoniously. Deep, dark shadows are everywhere and only the policeman’s terrace, where the ideal wife serves lemonade on a hot day, seems to rise above the murkiness. I should also say a word about the powerful score by Miklos Rozsa which is especially effective whenever Messrs Conrad and McGraw make an appearance.

The Killers is out on DVD from Criterion in R1 and from Universal in R2. I can’t comment on the presentation on the R2 disc as I haven’t seen it but bitter experience has taught that Universal’s UK releases are a hit and miss affair, with a high proportion of misses. The Criterion is everything you would expect from them with a beautiful, clean transfer to show off those deep, black shadows. As you would expect, the film comes packed with useful and informative extras – and, best of all, it is paired with Don Siegel’s 1964 remake (and Andrei Tarkovsky’s student film version). All in all, this represents the definitive presentation of what is probably my favorite film noir.