Two for the Seesaw is really the story of a second chance. An unlikely, difficult romance, between characters who have little in common, but their loneliness. You get that feeling ever since the sublime main titles, with Mitchum wandering in the black and white streets of New York. Later, Shirley MacLaine will also have a stylish, melancholy moment, when she practices ballet in a crummy, deserted studio. Jerry is a successful lawyer in Nebraska, who has never get around much, and now has lost everything, including the love of his wife Tess. He doubts his abilities to get by, both in a professional and personal point of view. Gittle, twenty-nine years old, is a divorced day-to-day dancer who'd like to open a class of her own. Behind her dreamy, charming smile, she hides failed relationships, forgotten ambitions and an ulcer. They meet quite by chance and decide to help each other, through their own frailties and struggles.
Adapted from a play by William Gibson, the script offers many exteriors shots and several settings, but never quite believes in them. Sequences showing the protagonists outside, with other people are all very short, and the emphasis is put on their intimate confrontations, wherever they take place on the telephone or in one of their small flats. Text is evocative, a bit talkative even- and it describes the efforts both characters do to establish communication, and make some order in their mixed feelings. A special attention is made on the idea of giving : Jerry appears anxious to take care of someone, to regain self-esteem, while half-heartedly, he expresses his own needs for help. He also encourages generous Gittle to make a claim on him. But, the girl remarks, when two people love each other, why should they need to make any claim?
Set in an atmospheric mood, in shadows of black, with beautiful Andre Previn score in the background, the film constantly drifts from raw, honest naturalism to a more sophisticated, classical drama. It's reminiscent of the New Wave (some scenes evoke Breathless) as well as Billy Wilder's The Apartment (MacLaine even goes to a Chinese restaurant) but the tone keeps a definitive identity until the very end. A bitter, feverish chronicle , it's the perfect illustration of an off-beat romance, with the awkwardness and the difficulty to understand each other coming over and ideal of mutual help. Frustrated in their feelings, the two leads are tempted by violence as a sure way of expression: Mitchum slaps his partner after a fight, and near the end, MacLaine seems eager to do the same with a cup. Gittle's illness, in the middle of the film, appears as a mean to reconcile them, and establish a kind of everyday routine, with Jerry finding back his sense of responsibility. But in fact, it drifts them further away: it seems Jerry can't bring himself to forget his ex-wife, and thus is unable to draw a line on his past. Gittle slow finding out of his nostalgia is really painful to watch. And the girl too, expects something more: a man, who will be completely hers. I couldn't help thinking of the Jack Lemmon character in The Apartment as a likely candidate for that.
The conclusion, then, is that Jerry and Gittle were not made for each other. Still, it's not such a sad touch as it may seem. Both may reintegrate a well-planned universe they had hoped to get away from together, but it's their own decision. And they have discovered a lot of things about themselves, in the run of this relationship, that helped them advance and grow up. "He will be very grateful to you" Gittle says, of her future lover. "And her too", replies Jerry. "More than she'll ever know". A sad, messed-up romance it may be, but the farewells of the characters certainly are a success of maturity and empathy, beyond love. Directed by Robert Wise, in a stylish way, TFTS lies heavily on the shoulders of the leading performances. Mitchum and MacLaine happen to make a wonderful combination, with the right rate of instability, surprise and charm. An ordinary guy, shattered by his divorce and rather ill at ease in society, Jerry was an unusual part for Mitchum. His sad, tired gaze makes you believe in the scars of the man; and while he does not speak as loud as he should at times, he's distantly moving. MacLaine's Gittle apparently brings back a few memories of Fran Kubelik and Ginnie. She gives her a determined individuality, a radiant persona and her spontaneity, in the laughs and in the tears is so powerful it's bewildering. She's effortlessly touching and you buy her at once as the strongest of the couple. The supporting cast is hardly there at all, although one sees the shadows of Jerry boss in New-York, his two boheme friends, who have an arty flat and a high regard for matrimony, and of course the voice of his wife, Tess.
MacLaine later revealed she had a three year affair with Mitchum, that began during the shooting. Usually, off-screen partners are not the best on a fictional level. Their own feelings make them awkward. But here, it is not the case. They have a terrific chemistry, and somehow, succeed in making you believe the story of Gittle and Jerry is how an ill-fated relationship should be lived. With classy honesty.