Monday 19 October 2009

An Affair to Remember (1957)

Director: Leo McCarey
Stars: Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr
This story, originally written by Delmer Daves and Donald Ogden Stewart, has been filmed three times, which is hardly surprising as it's a good story. What's surprising is that this first remake was directed by the same man who directed the original version, Leo McCarey, no less than sixteen years later. For some reason he must have felt that he could revisit the material and top his own film, which he did. That's quite an accomplishment and I can't think of another example of the same. In the few instances I can think of where a director remade his own film, the original still holds up best, such as the 1934 version of Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much and the 1933 version of Capra's Lady for a Day.

Love Affair was a popular hit in 1939, with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne in the leads; the former was excellent though I still don't quite understand the appeal of the latter, who's left me dry in every one of the nine films I've seen her in thus far. It collected no less than six Oscar nominations in Hollywood's greatest year but failed to win anything. The third version came in 1994 with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, and while I haven't seen it, what I've read about it suggests that the best thing about it seems to be the presence of Katharine Hepburn in her final film, an important event that probably warranted a better film. One day I'll find out.

The story is the same throughout the versions, though the name of one of the leading characters seems to change with each one. Here he's Niccolo Ferrante and he's something of a playboy. He's about to settle down by marrying Lois Clark and is on a liner called the Constitution heading over from Europe to meet her in New York as the film begins, prompting international broadcasters to comment on the affair. The American makes a fuss about the six million bucks he's marrying into, his Italian counterpart mourns the loss to the world of a master of the art of love and the English broadcaster can't understand what the fuss is about. Of course the real story begins not with Lois Clark but on the boat: Nickie Ferrante meets Terry McKay and so begins the affair to remember of the title, though hardly in an immediate way.

Ferrante is the charming and debonair Cary Grant, tailor made for a story like this though he initially resisted the casting. His thinking was that Charles Boyer had defined it so well in the original that it didn't warrant a retry, but the role could hardly have been better cast, there being no better lovable rogue in the business. To take on Irene Dunne's role we have Deborah Kerr, an appropriate choice given her particular looks as neither had a conventional beauty. The pair play off each other wonderfully and so have a very believable relationship. I'm not sure how much of their repartee is script and how much improvised by the actors but there's certainly some of the latter and it feels realistic enough for it to include plenty of it.

It's impossible not to be swept up in the emotion as their cruise over the Atlantic comes to an end and these two characters must part. They've behaved impeccably throughout the cruise, no monkey business going on at any point, though Ferrante does try it on shamelessly after their first accidental meeting. To her credit, Terry resists with panache, not interested in this international playboy in the slightest, though they end up spending the rest of the cruise together and gradually fall in love. They fail miserably to hide their shared affection, regardless what they try to avoid being seen together, up to and including their arrival in New York on New Year's Day.

By the time they get there, they've finally realised that regardless of their current plans, they want to spend the rest of their lives together. However they're both realistic to know that they're both living on other people's money so a future together wouldn't be anything like either of them has been used to. They promise to meet up in six months, on the 1st of July, at the top of the Empire State Building, having done all they can in that time to prepare for the moment. Interestingly this promise comes at precisely the halfway point of the movie, showing how much more story there is to come. These final scenes on board the Constitution are impeccable, the last one without them even together: it's merely a collection of glances as they each see who's waiting for them but it tells a whole slew of stories in facial movement and choreography.
Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr provide us plenty of that throughout, both at the top of their game here and with much better material than they had four years earlier in the poor Dream Wife. Grant had retired from the screen after that film, but his retirement only lasted two years before he broke it to make Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief. While it wasn't either the greatest Grant or Hitchcock in the book, it was a great commercial success and two years later this was an impeccable stamp of authority on the future. Even though he was now in his fifties, some of Grant's best work was still to come: with films like North By Northwest, Charade and Father Goose.

Kerr's great roles punctuate her career at various points and she was on a high one here: after Dream Wife, she'd made From Here to Eternity, The End of the Affair and The King and I, among others, all featuring great performances from her. Whatever the reason I don't get Irene Dunne as an actress and I still haven't figured that out, Deborah Kerr seems to me to be far more suited to this story and able to really shine in the role. I see her as much better in the part, even though it was Dunne's favourite of her own pictures, and though she sang her own songs while Kerr is dubbed by Marni Nixon, who had also dubbed her singing voice in The King and I.

There's a key supporting role in the Love Affair films and it's the same role whether it's Michel Marnet's grandmother, Nickie Ferrante's grandmother or Mike Gambril's aunt. It would seem that every version was fortunate enough to get a peach of an actress, able to provide the nuance needed for the character who first really sees how good the leading characters are together, whether they're in a relationship or not. Here the part goes to the least known of the three, Cathleen Nesbitt, who is nonetheless superb.

Nesbitt, perhaps best known as a stage actress who originated the role of Henry Higgins' mother in My Fair Lady on Broadway, played in a number of major films but only in supporting roles. For a film featuring a number of scenes of heartbreak, she knew this well from life, given that she was engaged to World War I poet Rupert Brooke, and she nails this part of Nickie's grandmother, Janou, spot on in both English and French, in sadness and in hope and she plays a very believable piano. She proves able to fill the shoes of the wonderful Maria Ouspenskaya, small in shoe size but large in talent. This is Kate Hepburn's role in 1994 and I'm sure that however good or bad the film she did fine work in the part.

Everything about this version is right, beyond some less than stellar rear projection shots. The pace is utterly perfect, quick enough to capture the passion of the thing but slow enough to take us effortlessly through almost two hours. The score is a sweeping romantic affair but never more than is appropriate. The camerawork is textbook stuff, a scene on the liner being the perfect example. When Nickie and Terry kiss for the first time it's on an outside staircase and the camera refuses to follow him back up to her, meaning that we know precisely what happens without ever seeing it. When they move down the stairs, it's to a perfectly composed shot framing Terry, Nickie and his shadow. There are many such examples dotted throughout the film.

It's no wonder that this is the defining version of the story, even following a highly successful original. Instead of six Oscars, it was only nominated for four and yet again it didn't win a thing. It lived on in people's memories and hearts though, to be referenced in many TV shows and films, not least Sleepless in Seattle, which sparked yet another revival of this version of the story. Having finally got to see it, it's easy to see why. It's one of the great and iconic love stories of the screen, which the American Film Institute rated fifth on their list of such pictures. I enjoyed it a lot more than a couple of the films above it too. I can see myself coming back to it again and again, because for as much heartbreak as there is in the film, it's one of the greatest depictions of hope I've ever seen.

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