Bright Lights Film Journal

Women Larger Than Life: Program Notes 2: King Vidor’s <em>Beyond the Forest</em> (1949) / Gerd Oswald’s <em>Crime of Passion</em> (1957)

Note: The humble program note has a long and noble history. Sometimes anonymous, sometimes not, cheered as often as they were reviled, these brief, ephemeral, often illuminating handouts, likely destined for the dustbin the same night they appeared, offer “wisdom in a nutshell,” as one of novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett’s characters aptly put it. This article is the second in Bright Lights’ series of vintage program notes from those heady days of the 1970s when unstoppable auteurists started their own cine clubs and commandeered movie theaters to bring their idea of cine-culture to audiences. Our late friend Roger McNiven continues the series with fascinating write-ups of two more works on the subject of “women larger than life,” in this case Bette Davis in King Vidor’s woefully underrated Beyond the Forest and Barbara Stanwyck in Gerd Oswald’s undeservedly obscure Crime of Passion. This double feature was screened at the legendary Thalia Theatre in New York City on Monday, December 3, 1979. We have added images but not edited the text, deferring to the time and spirit in which it was written.

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Both of these genre films derived from a single premise — a premise that is a tenet of modern feminism: that marriage to a man with mediocre goals and ideals can severely imprison a woman with independent energies. In each film, the husband clings to a limited conception of his professional status and would like to see his wife accept a commensurate relationship to the community of his peers. Each husband’s viewpoint is presented sympathetically (albeit as limited and insensitive), so for that reason neither film can be called a feminist tract. But each of the two women’s energy is disproportionately larger than her husband’s “realistic” outlook. The way in which all great art has drawn on polemical issues of everyday life is not by reproducing everyday life overlaid with a general cynicism (the method of too many modern movies), but rather by isolating a particular issue through exaggeration of the relevant attitudes to “larger-than-life” proportions. Beyond the Forest’s Rosa Moline (Bette Davis) and Crime of Passion’s Kathy Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) are exaggerations of the frustrated energy of housewives in an everyday kind of environment.

Within this common domain, the two heroines’ individual kinds of energy are considerably different. Kathy Doyle is intelligent and aware. Before marrying, she is a columnist with certain ideals, catering to a female readership. Her subsequent maneuvers to improve her marriage are subtly calculated. Rosa Moline, on the other hand, is pathetically self-deluded. The product of a small town, she has drifted into a marriage to the town doctor. But she remains an intractable misfit and fancies herself a big-city sophisticate. Her manipulations can fool the townsfolk but are nevertheless blindly impetuous.

These basic differences between the two women are reinforced by the different approaches of the films’ directors. The plot of Beyond the Forest resembles Zola’s Madame Bovary, but King Vidor’s deliciously operatic direction suggests that a more appropriate artistic tradition would be that of Puccini’s Tosca. Those who write off Beyond the Forest today — including Vidor, Davis, Davis’ fans, and a long line of establishment critics — insist on applying to all classical fiction films certain standards more appropriate to literary forms. For example, they require that a line of dialogue and the way it is delivered should “advance” the characterization of the speaker. To continue the analogy with opera, no such standard is applied to the scoring of a line in a libretto. The rhythms of Beyond the Forest are decidedly operatic rather than literary. The common complaint made is that the film is repetitive, that Davis is somehow doing the same thing in every scene. However, the way she stands, walks, pouts, darts her eyes, etc. in this film are her “leitmotifs”: material to be “orchestrated” by the director.

There are some who think of Davis as a subtle actress when given roles like Now Voyager. I suggest that on such occasions, audiences are really responding to the same kind of brute physicality that she exudes for Vidor. The only difference is that the constraints of a “literate” script create the illusion that the actress is conveying psychological shadings. Vidor’s film gives her free rein as no other film does. Then why isn’t she just chewing up the scenery? Because the “scenery” is Vidor’s visual orchestration. Herein lies the reason not only why this is Davis’ most powerful performance ever, but also why the film finally possesses the kind of subtlety we require of great art.

To appreciate the movie in these ways requires “giving” oneself to the film, the way one has to for an opera. One must feel for Rosa’s changes of fortune: these constitute Vidor’s alternative to “character development.” The possibility to laugh at Rosa is not excluded, but only within a context in which we must find her basically sympathetic. To laugh at the whole is an aesthetic abuse.

To mention one, out of many, of the subtleties of Vidor’s direction, there is a brief, wordless scene in which Rosa watches a train which passes through the smalltown station without stopping to simply drop off a mailbag. Rosa’s fantasies center around the train as a symbol of the outside world: it can bring exciting people in from that world and it can carry her away to it. As the engine passes Rosa, the camera is positioned close to the tracks so that it has to pan suddenly at the moment when the train might have come to a halt. The sudden movement and the low position of the angle in relation to the large train engine convey beautifully the power of the outside world and the transitoriness of the town of Loyalton. There follows a shot of the immobile mailbag from Rosa’s viewpoint: it comments ironically on the minimal nature of Rosa’s contact with the outside, and it also provides a metaphor for the inertia of Loyalton, as the train speeds away out of frame.

To mention one very significant feature of Vidor’s visual orchestration, consider the role played by imagery of nature and the elements. Rain, for example, underscores numerous scenes of Rosa’s disappointments. Fire and steam play what may seem to be overly obvious roles as externalizations of Rosa’s seething sexual energy. However, these symbols are ambivalent. Rosa despises the flaming smokestack of the saw mill that keeps her awake. In so doing, she implicitly, if unconsciously, reacts against her own restless passions — they also keep her awake. So much of what Rosa detests about the town is inseparable from what is within her. In the later stages, she gains a limited appreciation of this fact. If the lethargy of the town is typified by her Indian maid, Rosa nevertheless realizes that she resembles the maid physically, when she wears the maid’s clothes in an (unsuccessful) disguise in passing below her husband’s office window. In a touching scene in the forest that feeds the town mill, Rosa likens herself to the trees receiving the ax-mark of death. She has suffered the disillusionment of a brief trip to the big city and decided to submit to her husband’s wishes. Thus, natural imagery plays a part in carrying the narrative as well as amassing a complex of contradictions about Rosa that gradually urge us to view her with great sympathy.

While Vidor and Davis communicate through bold gestures, Gerd Oswald and Stanwyck in Crime of Passion create something more obviously subtle and more directly relevant to today’s viewpoints. Oswald, in a handful of relatively obscure movies in the 1950s, conveyed attitudes that were well ahead of the genre-film era, e.g., a view of sexuality as a weapon in a power struggle. Oswald is fascinated by irrational behavior and the ironies created by it. Kathy’s crime is, ironically, not strictly a crime of passion: it appears calculated and deliberate, yet it is clearly irrational since it is self-destructive. We never learn what goes through her mind when she steals the gun — or when she decides to marry, or when she maneuvers various people throughout the movie. Yet Stanwyck’s compelling performance constantly invites us to ponder these questions.

Oswald repeatedly refrains from simple explanations of actions that seem to demand such explanations. Instead, he implies that explanations are elusive, lying within areas of the psyche concealed from casual observation of behavior. One of his favorite visual strategies is shooting characters in long shot through foreground grill-like structures: telling behavioral detail is lost and replaced by a metaphor for entrapment by unfathomable mental forces. Almost every overt action in Crime of Passion is open to interpretation or infused with ambiguity. Kathy Doyle’s “passion” — her principal motivating force that would explain the casual chain leading to her crime — is never spelled out. It clearly transcends what she tells her husband, namely, making him happy. He, on the other hand, is ready simply to make her happy, or would if he could figure out what would make her happy. The opening scenes suggest that Kathy’s retreat into marriage and everything that follows is an escape from sexist attitudes in her employment. But the vitality she invests in everything she does suggests something more. Whatever exactly it is, it is connected with a search for an independent identity as a woman.

The most disturbingly ambiguous scenes of Crime of Passion are those between Kathy and her husband’s boss, Police Inspector Tony Pope (Raymond Burr). Each is quick to sense that they are both in some way “above” their immediate social environment. Unlike Rosa and David Brian’s Neil Latimer in Beyond the Forest, Kathy and Tony’s affair is not discovered. But it is by no means a straightforward affair of sexual passion. Each of the two characters manipulates the other to different, incompatible ends. Their communications seem to operate on double levels, as for example in the scene in Tony’s office when they look through cases of apparently unmotivated crimes. To a point, each recognizes this “subtext” of the other’s comments, although it is never made plain just how far. Again, Oswald invokes stylistic means of setting the relationship of these two characters apart from other characters. The principal means consists of filming their scenes together in long takes, which preserve the cool intensity of the couple’s individual behavior.

The opposition between these two movies can be put as follows. Beyond the Forest externalizes the central psychological phenomena — by means of flamboyant behavior and blatant symbolism, which are then molded together in intricate ways. Crime of Passion internalizes psychic phenomena — by means of devices that imply equally powerful, but perversely mysterious, mental forces. That such diametrically different methods can deal with the same subject — and a subject that is supposedly ahead of its time — is a tribute to the versatility of the postwar genre film. The films over the next two days, by Dwan and Wilder, represent more “moderate” directorial positions, while they exploit extremes possible within the conventions of standard genres