In old Hollywood movies, there were two types of Composers: the sruggling earnest young fellow who wants to make a relevant symphony, something that speaks tof the glorious streets of Manhattan, its klaxons and strumpets, its jackhammers and els, its horns and hardarts, and so on. Or, as we saw a month or so ago with “Hangover Square,” the composer is a troubled soul believes music should - nay, must - speak of the deep torment of modern man, the crashing fates that batter his soul from one extreme to the other!
The idea of Mahler sitting in a cabin in the woods composing isn’t very cinematic, but I suspect it’s the norm.
Which brings us to this installmment. Once the credits start, you realize this isn't \going to be a light romping comedy. If one of these letters fell over on your foot, it would break every bone in your toes:
. .. And our movie is:
Rather than tell you the plot, which we’re not here to do anyway, let’s see what the trailer has to say.
Look at that R. And the way the T spears the dot on the i like an olive. Will people still recognize that F when no one's taught cursive anymore?
When it rains, it glowers:
He’s a conductor / composer, which means he’s horribly intelligent, aristocratic, contemptuous, bitter, and an all-around ass, but he gets away with it because of his Genius. You know the type, at least if you’ve seen enough old movies.
That he does. He has the power to make her husband not have a successful career as a cellist this season. And who’s the husband?
Also known as Victor Lazlo. I can never root for this guy, because he’s Victor Lazlo, and took Ilsa away from Rick. Yes, decent man, hope of a Free Europe, etc., but he’s such a gloomy, serious fellow. But of course that comes with being a brilliant cellist! They're fascinating in a way a glum, moody, possessive shoe-store clerk wouldn't be.
Jealousy doesn’t begin to describe it. See, they were lov-ahrs before ze war, and she thought he was dead, what with all the confusion and running around and bombs and such. He shows up in New York after the war, and discovers that she’s living in a nice apartment - furs in the closet, expensive lamps knick-knacks too ugly to be cheap. She says she’s been supporting herself by teaching piano. Yes that's it, dear, piano! He concludes otherwise, and chokes her while screaming abuse.
This is after they’ve decided to get married. Which they do.
Here’s the set-up, then:
Or, default and declare bankruptcy and get a bailout. No? Not in '46? Fine. Claude Rains wants her back, she being the irresistible Bette Davis and all, and he hatches a plan to ruin the man who took her away. He will let the husband premier his new cello concerto, then tell him something so shocking, so unbearable, that it will rip them apart.
This moment after a performance is telling - what’s going here?
The fellow with the pipe is a classical music critic for the Bugle - yes, the Bugle - and he’s elbowed his way through a giggle of bobby-soxers who are just swooning over the cellist. He's so dreamy! The way he played the Walton - brother, it sent her. While I don't believe there were many young adoring classical music fans then, this must have a certain amount of sense to audience at the time. More likely they just assumed classical music had its bouncy perky groupies too, and gave it no more thought. I suspect the entire world of Longhair Culture was something of a mystery, anyway.
But is it noir? Well, it has its moments; it’s shot in moody B&W with lots of shadows and angles. For example:
In noir, even the lights are turned on, it’s still dark. So yes, it’s got that. But otherwise it’s a Women’s Story, with all the melodrama of being torn between the Father Figure and the Rakish, Tempestuous Man of Passion.
Side note: this young lady appears in the wedding scene, and looks right at the camera with the most dear-in-a-headlight expression I've ever seen in a major movie. What ever she’s on, I hope she brought enough for the whole class:
Rains is wonderful as ever; he’s always good. Half of his head appears to be hair, though:
My favorite shot may be this dissolve, showing how the shadow of the conductor’s Secret looms and haunts:
I’m not giving away anything but telling you what the secret is: the conductor and Bette Davis were sleeping together before the cellist reappeared from the ashes of Europe. That’s right. She’s desperate for her new husband not to know, even though it’s screamingly obvious to everyone in the movie, the technical crew, the caterers, the audience, the ushers, and people just driving slowly past the theater. It's a bit ridiculous, and it makes us root for someone desperate to stay with a guy who choked the hell out of her ten minutes after agreeing to get married.
Is it worth it? Sure. I was never a big Bette Davis fan, but that doesn't mean I don't like her. Rains, as noted, is fine, and the Tempestuous, Passionate World of Classical Music is always good for amusement. But there's something else: the soundtrack. Korngold later turned the score into a cello concerto. It’s very good. Korngold was one of the last European romantic composers; he was even praised by Mahler himself as a young man.