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.

Secret Beyond the Door


In the past I’ve written about a few Freudian thrillers from the 40s, Spellbound and The Dark Mirror for sure. The decade has many examples though as it was such a fashionable subject and seemed to blend effortlessly into the world of film noir. Looked at now, from a modern perspective, the cod psychological mumbo jumbo of these films is fairly risible. However, films are first and foremost an entertainment medium; we don’t watch them to gain, for example, a deeper insight into psychoanalysis. So, when a movie like Secret Beyond the Door (1947) presents us with a dubious scientific explanation for the odd behaviour of its characters it’s not really fair to criticize it too heavily on that score. Fritz Lang’s film really is an exercise in style over substance – the look, feel and mood of the picture is what carries it, not the plausibility (or lack of it) of the story or the questionable motives of the main characters.

The basic premise is a familiar one, various forms having been used over the years in a variety of films. There’s a young woman on vacation who meets a mysterious yet attractive stranger, falls in love, marries and, after a time, discovers that all is not what it initially seemed. The woman in this particular movie is Celia (Joan Bennett), an heiress who’s recently found herself alone in the world and has taken off on a trip to Mexico before returning to the States and settling down to a life of bland respectability. However, Celia is not the usual, run-of-the-mill innocent abroad. Contrary to appearances, there’s a darker, almost perverse, side to her nature that soon becomes apparent. Quite by chance, she witnesses the flare-up of a knife fight between two local men. This isn’t some matter of slighted honour, more a duel of passion; the men are vying for the affections of a woman. Instead of doing the sensible thing and walking away, Celia is rooted to the spot, fascinated by the events before her. The viewer isn’t the only one struck by the hungry, predatory look in Celia’s eyes as she absorbs this primitive ritual – another bystander’s attention is drawn to her. He is Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave), an architect of patrician background.

To cut to the chase, Celia and Mark fall in love, marry and move back to his out-of-town home in the States. Even before they leave Mexico though, it’s apparent that all isn’t well with Mark; he has a tendency to withdraw from intimacy without explanation. As the couple embark on their new life the skeletons begin to rattle in the family cupboard and, bit by bit, secrets and hints of a dark past start to emerge. Celia’s husband is a deeply troubled man who appears to have a morbid obsession both with historical murders and the rooms in which those crimes took place, while questions linger over the death of his first wife. The true roots of the problem are not immediately obvious but, even so, the new bride slowly comes to suspect that her own life may be in danger.

The script calls for a good deal of irrational behaviour on the part of the main characters, enough to sink many a movie. Despite that, the film still works and is pretty successful as a piece of highly strung noir melodrama. This is largely due to the work of director Lang and cameraman Stanley Cortez, between them creating a stylish and stylized visual experience. The opening segment in Mexico has a dreamy, unreal quality that perfectly fits the mood of the lovestruck Celia. As soon as the action switches to the Lamphere estate the look and feel alters too, the uneasy romanticism of the south of the border scenes switches to something more akin to the gothic nightmare that begins to unfold in Celia’s shadowy and threatening new home. It’s this aspect of the film that leads to comparisons being drawn between it and Hitchcock’s Rebecca. On the surface, there are parallels: newlyweds haunted by the spectre of the husband’s murky past, a family home where unwelcome memories seem to lurk in every shadow, and a distinctly odd household.


For all that, the two movies are really quite different in essence, chiefly as a result of Joan Bennett’s characterization of Celia. Unlike Joan Fontaine’s second Mrs DeWinter, Joan Bennett is a tougher and more worldly woman. I’ve already mentioned the dark side of Celia that’s apparent from early on, but the perverse side of her character is further developed as the story progresses. A weaker, and maybe a saner, woman would likely hightail it back to the safety of the city when her husband first begins to exhibit signs of serious psychological imbalance. But not Celia; she chooses to stand her ground, whether through raw courage or her own fascination with danger, and stick it out to the bitter end. One of Bennett’s great strengths as an actress, and very likely the reason Lang chose to work with her so often, was her ability to combine feminine allure with the grit necessary to hack it in a grim world. I found Michael Redgrave’s performance much less satisfactory though. My biggest issue was that I never felt entirely convinced by his transition from the cool aristocrat to bug-eyed loon. However, in all fairness, this kind of thing is rarely especially easy to pull off. His best moment occurs in the short fantasy scene where he imagines himself on trial for murder. With a jury of literally faceless men looking on, Redgrave plays both prosecutor and defendant in the ultimate trial of conscience.

For a long time Secret Beyond the Door was one of Lang’s most elusive titles on DVD, at least in an acceptable form. As the rights in the US now appear to reside with LionsGate it’s probably not a good idea to hold your breath waiting for anything to appear from that source. There’s been a French disc available for a while but it suffers from the old problem of forced subtitles. However, last year saw two releases that fit the bill: a budget disc from Italy and a nicely packaged edition from Exposure in the UK. Both seem to use the same transfer for the movie, but the UK release sees more effort put into overall presentation. The movie gets a nice remastered transfer with very good contrast (vital for a film like this) and only the odd speckle here and there. For extras we get an extensive gallery and filmographies. There’s also a 12 page booklet that reproduces the original poster art on the cover and contains three separate articles by David Hughes, James Oliver and Claudette Pyne. In this era of cost-cutting MOD programmes, it’s a credit to a small outfit like Exposure that they have both the will and ability to produce a thoughtful edition like this. Anyone interested in collecting classic movies really ought to consider putting a bit of business their way and support such efforts. This film tends to be glossed over somewhat when Lang’s work is discussed, probably due to the absurdity of certain aspects of the plot, but it’s actually very enjoyable. Joan Bennett gives a good performance in the lead and Lang directs with great skill and style. Anyone who is interested in film noir, Fritz Lang, or just classy 40s movies should have a copy of this in their collection.

Man Hunt


Popular wisdom holds that when a film is adapted from a novel the original source material is inevitably superior. I’m not sure how true that really is though. I suspect that this maxim has come to be as a result of the disappointment felt by a loyal readership when filmmakers have had to alter the material to make it work on the screen. We all naturally form a mental picture of characters and places when we read about them, but when others place their interpretation in front of us it can be an underwhelming and perplexing experience. Man Hunt (1941) is Fritz Lang’s interpretation of Geoffrey Household’s novel Rogue Male. Since I saw the movie first, many moons ago, and only later read the novel, my own preference is for the film version. In truth, I found the book to be a bit of a letdown – not that it’s actually bad or anything, but just because it lacks Lang’s little stylistic touches and the character interaction that helps the film pack a greater emotional punch.

The movie is basically a chase story which utilises that old chestnut of the hunter becoming the hunted. Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) is a big game hunter of some renown who has grown weary of the traditional prey. In Germany, on the eve of WWII, he finds himself closing in on the “most dangerous game” – man. And not just any man at that. Perched high on a hilltop, he focuses the cross-hairs of his hunting rifle on one Adolf Hitler. With a live round in the chamber, he has only to touch the trigger to forever alter the course of world history. However, for Thorndike this is merely a sporting stalk – an attempt to get close enough to the prey to make the kill itself a purely technical issue, for he has lost his taste for the taking of lives. But fate has other plans for Thorndike; such a simple and unexpected thing as a leaf falling across his telescopic sight causes him to twitch at the wrong moment and thus be discovered by a passing sentry. He is hauled away to be interrogated, tortured and presented with an ultimatum – his life in exchange for a signed confession that he was acting under orders from the British government to effect the assassination of Hitler. Realising the consequences of any such confession, Thorndike refuses and finds himself sentenced to death. Chance, and the natural world, once again comes into play when the faked accident that is supposed to claim his life doesn’t quite come off. From here on Thorndike must run for his life, first to a freighter and then to an England that is positively hiving with Nazi agents and fifth columnists all directed by the suave and sinister Quive-Smith (George Sanders).


Fritz Lang brought a very noirish atmosphere to what is a fairly standard adventure thriller. The sets that represent London are bathed in deep, dark shadows that promise danger and death for the unwary. He has his hero ruthlessly driven further and further underground, his world shrinking by the minute, until he finally finds himself walled up within the very bowels of the earth. Walter Pidgeon performs well as Thorndike and effortlessly handles the character shift from a man who has achieved a degree of mastery over nature itself to one who becomes desperate, friendless and riddled with guilt. George Sanders made a career out of playing sophisticated and detached villains so the part of Quive-Smith was one he could manage with his eyes closed, but that’s not to take anything away from his performance. Joan Bennett would eventually make three films with Lang, of which Man Hunt was the first. Her role as the prostitute (never explicitly stated but clear enough all the same) who helps Thorndike and falls for him is a large part of what makes the film work, adding much needed humanity and a genuinely touching quality to a very dark tale. John Carradine also deserves a mention for his turn as the cadaverous assassin hounding Thorndike and leading to an excellently filmed confrontation within the London Underground system.

Man Hunt was long absent on DVD until Fox finally released it in R1 last month. The disc is up to the usual high standard from that company, sporting a sharp, clear image with wonderful contrast. There’s a commentary included by Patrick McGilligan along with a short featurette and advertising galleries. The only bad thing to say is that this title looks like it may well be the last classic release we’re going to see from Fox for some time, and that’s all the more galling given the high quality of their product. All told, Man Hunt is a fine film, first rate Lang, and a title that I’m just glad was able to make it out before Fox decided to shut up shop.

The Woman in the Window


In many ways Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944) plays like a dress rehearsal for his production of Scarlet Street the following year. Both films feature the same three stars – Edward G Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea – and tell the story of a married, middle-aged man whose chance meeting with a young woman leads him into a vortex of murder, blackmail and ruin. However, where Scarlet Street is relentlessly grim, The Woman in the Window is a paler shade of noir – and not just because of its ending.

Richard Wanley (Robinson) is an assistant professor at a New York college whose wife and family have gone off on a trip, leaving him to his own devices. After an evening spent at his club with a couple of friends, including the District Attorney (Raymond Massey), he pauses on his way home to admire a portrait of a woman in the window of an adjacent art gallery. As he’s gazing through the window, the subject of the portrait, Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), appears by his side and, one thing leading to another, he ends back at her apartment. Up to this point everything seems innocent enough, but the abrupt and violent arrival of Reed’s lover sends the situation spiralling out of control. Although Wanley is left with no alternative but to kill his assailant out of self defence, he is also aware that his story is unlikely to be accepted and, even if it is, his life will be ruined. The solution – dump the body, destroy all the evidence and make like it never happened. Naturally, all of Wanley’s well laid plans start to unravel before his eyes as the police investigation starts to build up a body of forensic evidence that may soon cast suspicion on the hapless professor. The greatest danger, however, is posed by a shady ex-cop (Dan Duryea) with blackmail on his mind. The plot builds inexorably towards a suitably downbeat climax, yet this film has one last sting in its tail. I won’t spoil things for anyone who hasn’t seen this, but suffice to say that this ending has led some to question the noir credentials of the movie. Personally, I don’t share this view but I can see why it remains a bone of contention with some.


As I said above, The Woman in the Window comes off as a lighter form of noir than Scarlet Street, and a good deal of this, aside from the ending, comes down to the portrayal of the characters. It is much easier to sympathise with Robinson’s character here, somehow his decisions, while questionable, seem more understandable. Bennett, too, is much less repugnant than would be the case in Scarlet Street. She is clearly a kept woman and a femme fatale, in the sense that she leads the protagonist into a dangerous, doomed situation, yet her motives are neither malicious nor wholly selfish. It’s only Dan Duryea, in another trademark role as a smirking villain, who fails to endear himself to the audience. There was something about the man – I think it relates to the casually mocking note in his voice – that led to his being typecast in such parts. There’s lots of noir imagery on show with a good deal of the action taking place at night and on rainy city streets. One recurring motif throughout the film is the number of shots which follow events through a series of open doors, symbolising (I suppose) the characters’ deepening crisis. The more I watch and re-watch Lang’s American films, the higher he grows in my estimation – I’d definitely rank him up among my top five directors.

The film was released on DVD last summer, along with a few other noir titles, by MGM in R1. The disc is totally barebones but the transfer is very good, maybe a little soft. There is a R2 available from Spain (I’m not sure about other countries) which, despite an English soundtrack and removable subs, is nowhere near this in terms of picture quality – fortunately, I managed to offload my copy on a friend who remains stubbornly locked into region two. If you’re a fan of noir or Lang then the R1 is the way to go, and I have no hesitation in recommending the movie.


The Reckless Moment


You live in a small close-knit community where everyone knows you and yours. Your family is all around, both depending on you and making endless demands on your time. You are also the victim of a blackmailer. What do you do and who do you turn to? That’s the problem at the centre of the 1949 film noir thriller from Max Ophuls, The Reckless Moment.

Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) lives in a small California town. She is married with two teenage children, has a housekeeper and a large comfortable home. On the surface everything appears idyllic, but chaos is looming. The film opens with Lucia driving to Los Angeles to meet a man called Ted Darby. Darby (Sheppard Strudwick) has been dating the daughter of the family and Lucia means to put an end to it. She fails to do so and Darby comes secretly to the house later that night. The daughter (Geraldine Brooks) meets him in the adjacent boathouse and, after a quarrel, Darby stumbles off the landing to skewer himself on an anchor below. Lucia discovers the body the next morning and, with her husband traveling on business in Europe and she wanting to protect her daughter, decides to dump the corpse and cover everything up. It looks like she might pull it off until Martin Donnelly (James Mason) turns up with some compromising letters and proposes blackmail.


Joan Bennett will be familiar to any fan of noir due to her work with Fritz Lang on a number of pictures, most notably Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window. There’s no femme fatale style vamping here though, instead she’s the competent, protective mother driven to near despair as the situation spins out of her control. Her measured underplaying is one of the factors which keeps the movie rooted in noir territory and saves it from straying into melodrama. The other factor is James Mason. Two years earlier Mason had given a blinding performance in Carol Reed’s beautiful and masterful Odd Man Out. Here he’s playing another doomed Irishman, albeit one with more dubious motives. He’s very believable in the role and there’s nothing that seems phony as we witness his self-doubts transform him.

The film is well directed by Ophuls and excellently photographed by Burnett Guffey. The location work adds to the realism and the interiors of the big open-plan house seem, paradoxically, to heighten the sense of domestic claustrophobia. It’s almost impossible to hold a private conversation anywhere as family members bustle in and out, cheerfully oblivious to the treachery that threatens them all.

The movie is available in R2 from Second Sight and it’s a great looking, clean transfer. The disc also has decent enough extras with a commentary, a good introduction and a stills gallery. Definitely recommended.