Not a great movie by any means but I am drawing attention to it for other reasons. While entering familiar small town soap opera territory with malice behind every curtain and the repression rampant a century ago, it’s a fabulous exploration of character.
The narrative drive is slim, young couple coming undone by circumstance. But that is more than compensated by the preoccupation with their actual characters, marital bust-ups for no reason, insecurities to the fore, a daring sexual overtness that for the time it was made does not stoop to the lowest common denominator, and without doubt the best performance in the career of Yvette Mimieux (Dark of the Sun, 1968) here taking center stage rather than as was more usual a mere appendage to the leading man.
The story is told primarily through the eyes of Anna (Yvette Mimieux), a poor uneducated homely girl who falls for dashing virile law student Carl (Richard Chamberlain), both of Irish descent, who, against parental wishes, run off to get married.
But marriage instantly brings financial calamity. As a married man, Carl is ineligible for college loans, and his wife is forbidden, following aspirational middle-class custom of the day, to work except for a bit of babysitting. Viewing Anna, coming from poorer stock, as a gold-digger, Carl’s father Patrick (Arthur Kennedy) not only withdraws financial support but demands repayment of loans.
So the pair struggle through. And that would be par for soap opera.
What brings this to the fore is the director’s fascination with character, allowing personality, with all its inexplicable whimsicalities, full rein rather than making that subservient to a more dramatic story.
If you think couples these days have difficulty communicating, imagine the situation a century ago where a man made all the decisions and expected obedience from his partner. And a wife so fearful of announcing a pregnancy for fear it would force her husband to abandon his studies. Beyond obvious worry, there is little problem-sharing or joint resolution of difficulties.
For all his charm, Carl is pretty gauche. His ardent inexperienced love-making borders on rough. He is so out of touch with his wife’s passion that he takes a job as a nightwatchman. He plays a mean trick on her in a communal shower. And although he refuses to cower to his father, in general he kowtows to authority.
Anna is more feisty, challenging his father, ignoring patriarchal rules, almost pathologically opposed to using the word “Sir,” but full of compassion, befriending the gay florist, object of public ridicule, encouraging him in his writing, standing up, too, for the widow, forced by circumstance to become the mistress of a rich businessman (Oscar Homolka), taking money for the privilege.
Yet for all her outgoing confidence, she is insecure, so desperate to learn that she sneaks into the halls of the college to overhear lectures, a dictionary her constant companion. Sexually, she is conflicted, memories of stepfather abuse arising too often, and yet intensely physical, adoring the touch of a loving male.
Despite her homely beauty, she follows a more obviously attractive woman, copying the way she walks, swings her hips, flicks her hair. She wants a tight sweater when the fashion is to wear them loose. Unable to afford a hair salon, she has her blonde hair cut short enough in a barber shop so that it will bounce when she walks. Due to her deficiencies and in constant emotional turmoil, she is liable to snap at perceived insult.
The story could easily have gone down a more fairy-tale route, of Anna finding herself, espousing independence, becoming a writer, instead of – anathema to a contemporary audience – finding expression by supporting her husband. But that would not be true to the times. That she has hardly any home to look after, little in the way of furniture to polish, no cosy gang of housewives for coffee mornings, so her efforts at expanding her education would simply qualify as a sensible way to spend her day.
And while director Alex Segal (Harlow, 1965) does not trust her with the kind of soulful close-up accorded the likes of Elizabeth Taylor or Audrey Hepburn, where one look into the eyes reveals everything, and restricts emotion to dialog, he does provide countless small moments that allow proper character development. Nor does he trust himself much, only two compositions of any singularity; snow falling on a house that turns out to be a storekeeper tipping icing sugar over a model of a home for a shop window Xmas scene; and a shadow suddenly appearing when the couple are about to make love.
And there is a role reversal of sorts. It’s television heartthrob Richard Chamberlain (Twilight of Honor, 1963) who regularly disports semi-naked rather than Mimieux. Chamberlain took the opportunity to boost his burgeoning singing career, crooning the movie theme song. Although the undoubted star, it was Mimieux, though lumbered with an Irish accent, who took the acting plaudits.
Sally Benson (a career stretching from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, 1943, to Viva Las Vegas, 1964) and Alfred Hayes (The Double Man, 1967) wrote the screenplay from the Betty Smith (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) bestseller. Features one of the lesser-known scores of Bernard Herrman (Marnie, 1964) but you will instantly recognize swelling strings that wouldn’t be out of place in an obsessional Hitchcock piece.
An enjoyable picture, batting above average, almost Tarantino-esque in concentrating on character at the expense of story. Sure, there’s no equivalent to foreign hamburgers, but there is some quirky dialog and it’s worth it just to see what Mimieux can do when given the opportunity.
Seems easier to get hold of the Richard Chamberlain album than the movie, but it must be on streaming somewhere, it was on YouTube at one point so may return there.