16 March 2014 | melvelvit-1
Film Noir's "Madame Bovary"
Is BEYOND THE FOREST an overripe and over-the-top potboiler or a potent, underrated film noir? Both, actually, with an emphasis on the latter. This is film noir's MADAME BOVARY wherein a provincial housewife's romantic fantasies and big city dreams bring tragedy to everyone in her orbit and it's the "twisted sister" of Vincente Minnelli's ode to Flaubert's driven, deluded anti-heroine, released the same year. Nineteen forty-nine was the year of the desperate housewife in Hollywood- in addition to Bette Davis & Jennifer Jones, there's also Audrey Totter in TENSION and Lizabeth Scott in TOO LATE FOR TEARS, postwar noir women who "expect and demand a better life and plan to achieve it by any means necessary".
Forty year-old Bette Davis "with her low-cut peasant blouses, long black wig, and carmine lips" is unquestionably miscast but, like the film itself, that actually works in a perverted sort of way. If Virginia Mayo had been cast (Davis actually lobbied for her), it would have begged the question, "why doesn't this beautiful girl just hop a bus to New York or Hollywood or something?" but with a not-so-young-anymore Rosa -out of options and rapidly running out of time- there's a palpable sense of entrapment as the irrational resentments that have simmered for far too long are ready to erupt. Still, the movie also has its amusing aspects and you can't help but smile as Rosa sashays down the street and all the men stop and stare. How could a past-her-prime, dimestore siren like that keep Joseph Cotten and David Brian in such thrall? Why, sex of course. Rosa no doubt did things in bed they couldn't get enough of, much like the hold Wallis Simpson had over the Duke of Windsor. The crime of Rosa Moline was similar to that of Phyllis Hochen in THE UNHOLY WIFE (desperate for a way out, she ends up shooting her husband's best friend) and from the overblown opening prologue scroll to the mounting hysteria and rampant symbols of Hell that culminate in a "shocking conclusion", Vidor's "Bovary" casts a spell as well. Written off as a "camp classic" for years, BEYOND THE FOREST has been reassessed of late:
Bette Davis tires of life married to a small-town doctor, so she takes off to Chicago for an affair, hopping the most monstrously phallic train in film history. Her frenzied performance is met on the other side of the camera by director King Vidor, who matches her excesses shot for shot. The "What a dump!" line quoted in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? originates here, though it's actually one of the film's more naturalistic moments. Much of Vidor's late work flirts dangerously with camp; this 1949 effort, I'm afraid, frequently succumbs, though it has a weird kind of power and integrity. With Joseph Cotten and David Brian. -Dave Kehr
BEYOND THE FOREST, with its main character's dissatisfaction with small- town middle-class morality, its big-city expressionistic mise-en-scène, and Davis, with the most extreme portrayal of a malignant bitch of the forties, we have a work that is firmly rooted in the tradition of film noir...this paean to amour fou is one of the most operatic of all films noirs -at once both moralistic and obdurate, grandly emotive, overbearing, and magnificent. -The American Film Noir
A TV perennial back in the day, legal hassles prevent King VIdor's unsung noir from being shown today. As of this writing, it's not in the Warner Archives and TCM hasn't aired it in well over a decade. That's a shame.