Sunday 18 February 2007

None But the Lonely Heart (1944) Clifford Odets

Here's the film that finally won Miss Ethel Barrymore a long overdue Oscar. In fact up until this point she hadn't even been nominated, though she would be three times more in the future. The main reason for this is because, unlike her brothers, she mostly stayed on the stage. None But the Lonely Heart came out in 1944 but it was Barrymore's first film since 1933 and only one of four since 1919. That's hardly a prolific output, even if you don't compare it to that of brother Lionel.

She plays Ma Mott, mother to Ernie Mott, who is something of a wanderer. He's played by Cary Grant as a free spirit who doesn't want to be fettered by anything, so off he goes around the country with his dog doing odd jobs for people. As he says, he has nowhere to go and he's going there tomorrow. However he does have ties: as much as he argues with his mother, he cares deeply for her, and he's just been advised that she's dying of cancer. There's a lovely local girl called Aggie Hunter, a musician, who plays him the Russian cello piece that gives the film its title, and it's pretty obvious from moment one that she's long made her intentions clear and has been waiting or a long time for him to settle down. There's also Ada, another lovely local girl, that falls for him and this time he falls for her too. However there are major complications that aren't going to be easy to resolve.

The strange thing here is that Cary Grant does a great enough job that we're thoroughly drawn into his character whatever he does and wherever he goes. He interacts with a wide range of people and remains completely in charge of the situation throughout. Yet in his scenes with his ma, it looks like he's acting while she's as natural as could be, even though she's playing a part very different from any other I've seen her play. The same applies a couple of times in scenes with Barry Fitzgerald, who can be as subtle a character actor as I've ever seen.

The cast are superb, especially Barrymore and Fitzgerald, but also Grant and the two women who love him: June Duprez as Ada and Jane Wyatt as Aggie. George Coulouris is a notable villain, sleazy as all get out but respectable on the surface. The real star though is the script. This is precisely the sort of film that I don't tend to go for: it's a character development piece whose plot isn't particularly important for its own sake but rather for where it takes its characters. It's the sort of thing that in the book world would have 'A Novel' thrown on the cover to point out that its fiction but we should take it seriously. You don't see that on pulp material or genre material or any other material that attempts to have some fun.

Yet there's definitely fun here, if not in the standard sense. The script is subtle yet engaging and full of quirky lines that demonstrate that it was written by someone with a deep love of language. No, it's not particularly realistic, but I can still buy into it. The fun isn't the danger or the action, it's the language used by the people involved and the fathoming out of the reasons behind who, what and why. The ending is a particularly subtle thing that is more of a beginning. It's definitely a film to think about and to watch again and savour.

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