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Thursday 8 October 2009

A Stolen Life (1946)

Director: George Fitzmaurice
Stars: Bette Davis, Glenn Ford and Dane Clark
We arrive in the Massachusetts town of New Bedford just in time to watch quiet artist Kate Bosworth miss the ferry. She's never been to this unnamed island before, presumably Martha's Vineyard, but she's going to stay with her cousin, Freddie Linley. Missing the ferry turns out to be a lucky move for her because it means she gets to ride over with Bill Emerson instead. He's a lighthouse inspector, staying at the Dragonhead Lighthouse just off the island, and someone who understands the concept of being alone as much as she does. Sure enough, she quickly falls for him, hardly a stretch given that she's Bette Davis and he's Glenn Ford.

Surprisingly they only ever appeared in two films together, the second being Pocketful of Miracles a decade and a half later, and intriguingly both of them were remakes. After all, remakes are hardly a modern concept, however much it often seems like it. This one is also an example of another trend of the time, an American remake of an English film. A Stolen Life was originally Stolen Life, made in 1939 with Elisabeth Bergner and Michael Redgrave, but like Gaslight and The Lodger, it soon had a trans-Atlantic translation. Pocketful of Miracles, of course, was a Frank Capra remake of a Frank Capra film, Lady for a Day.

So Kate falls for Bill, growing in confidence as time passes. She's a quiet soul, decent and introspective, and she woos him slowly. In fact she starts off with excuses, arranging to paint the lighthouse keeper's portrait for an hour a day just so she can get onto the rock to see Bill. The pair of them connect, but in a quiet and substantial way that provides the typical irascible Walter Brennan plenty of opportunity to steal a few scenes as the keeper, even though it's a surprisingly small part for him. Kate and Bill resonate, a connection that doesn't have to be flashy to mean something, so naturally it can't last.

If there's anything better in the movies than Bette Davis in the lead role, it has to be Bette Davis in two lead roles, and sure enough the reason that Kate won't fetch Bill back to Craven Cottage is that she has a twin sister, one who wouldn't hesitate to try to steal him away. Pat Boswell is as extroverted as Kate is introverted, as flashy and overt as Kate is down to earth. Of course they meet and Pat takes over and it only takes a few scenes of heartache before they're married. Kate has to deal with it, turning instead to her painting, exhibiting her work and hooking up in uncertain ways with a bitter and insulting artist by the name of Karnock. He's played by Dane Clark trying very much to be Burgess Meredith in That Uncertain Feeling.

It's hard to focus on the story here, partly because it's so easy to concentrate on Bette Davis playing her double role in so many scenes that saw her interact with herself. It was hardly new technology in 1946, Buster Keaton having gone to even more extremes with the concept over two decades earlier in Sherlock Jr, but it's done very well indeed. Whoever the double is in the longer scenes looks fine and whoever did the technical work did a great job. Most of the praise belongs to Bette though, as the two characters look precisely the same but are consistently distinguishable through mannerisms and vocal quirks. It's skilled work but then this is Bette Davis after all.

Mostly the problems come through the uncertainty of where the film is going to go. It isn't bad to have suspense but it doesn't seem to have the coherence needed to be one single thing. Was it going to be a drama? Was it going to be a thriller? Was it going to be a romance? Was there going to be a murder and who would kill who? Who would know and who wouldn't? In failing to really define what it was going to be it fails to define the internal logic that it has to follow. So it flows freely but too freely. Characters appear as if they're going to have major meaning, like Karnock, only to vanish from the film entirely after a swift attempt to explain why they're even there. It isn't a bad film, the last ten seconds notwithstanding, but it didn't have a clue what it wanted to be.

Glenn Ford was establishing himself in 1946, having come back from service in the Marines during World War II. The biographies seem to credit Bette Davis with giving him his first post-war screen role with this film but the one that made him a star was released three months before it. That was Gilda, a superb film noir with him playing opposite Rita Hayworth and after that he didn't have any trouble landing roles. Davis of course was well established, this being the last hit she had for Warner Brothers, with one more film to go for them, 1946's Deception, in which she either lost the film to Claude Rains or handed it to him to run with, I couldn't tell which. Perhaps that was a deliberate attempt to relax a little and recover from this one, which marks the only time she would ever produce a film as well as act in it. It apparently frazzled her to no small degree.

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