12 July 2011 | secondtake
Piece by piece construction of a leading lady, with gobs of fascinating character actors
A movie far out of its time, yet ahead of its genre. By 1965 this kind of small black and white film had migrated to television productions, or had disappeared. While clearly low budget without any stars, it keeps a tight formal structure and strong production throughout. And the idea, gradually piecing together someone's identity, makes for a great movie.
Even if it does borrow, in terms of structure only, from "Citizen Kane," no less. That is, an investigator is set off to learn who the real Sylvia is, and by meeting with one important contact after another, and going through a series of well done flashbacks, we are able to piece together the complicated life of the title character. The biggest difference from Kane (besides virtuosic style) is that Sylvia is an ordinary person. Or she seems ordinary until you learn in stages the nuances and integrity of her survival.
There are many things left unanswered, and I'm not sure that's totally for the best. We never quite understand her meandering through dramatic (and noble) moments one after another. What kind of childhood set her off this way ("Kane," significantly, pivoted around a childhood event). Sylvia is a construction, apparently beautiful (in movie terms), but more importantly interesting, strong, independent. A great role model.
The investigator, called Mack, is played by George Maharis, who has a steady and calm approach all through. What happens after the establishment of his role is really terrific, because each person he encounters offers a new scenario, a new setting and story and conversation, and then a new flashback. And some of these side characters are fabulous true characters. So you get captivated time and after time. In some ways the least interesting character is this hopeless perfect and yet tainted paradigm, Sylvia, who by the end gets her own long segment, a present tense adjustment of all of what we've seen so far.
It's a little stilted at times, and the patient pace isn't always a benefit. The ending might actually seem a bit inevitable, too, which is fair enough. But in the big view you almost want to see it again to catch some of the piece you might have missed. It's filmed a decade after the last great noirs, and so isn't a big in the mode (though some people throw every b&w movie into the mix if they have a loner guy and a blonde). And it is a terrific tonic to the bigger Hollywood machine made stuff coming out in widescreen color (a lot of it). But when you see the changes in the medium with "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and so on the next year or two, it's really really old fashioned.
Check it out.