BluRay/DVD Reviews

SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR

By • Aug 30th, 2012 •

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“Nostalgia is cheap witchcraft. It is also an old looking glass, which reflects, however dimly, chairs that are chairs and light that is light.” Whitney Balliett wrote these words in 1957, about the half remembered music of Kansas City jam sessions of the late 1930’s. One could also say something similar about this phenomena of DVD, which is unearthing dimly remembered fragments of the cinematic past.

It’s not just that these square-boxed, black & white images produced before 1953 presuppose an audience and a way of watching, in solitude and yet together with countless others, unknown and unseen, that has long been unavailable. The stories and characters that make up these films were part of an ongoing social discourse that has also ceased to exist, like a language that is no longer spoken, or a religion without any followers. Though it is true these films had meaning for me when I was a child, that meaning has indelibly changed.

Take, for example, a film produced in the year I was born that I’ve never heard of before, let alone seen: George Stevens’ SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR, recently released by Olive Films in a fairly crisp transfer that beautifully captures the porcelain sheen of George Barnes’ cinematography. One of the reasons this DVD is so lovely is that the negative probably hasn’t seen the light of day in over sixty years. Now George Stevens is not exactly what I would call an obscure filmmaker. He was Elizabeth Taylor’s favorite director. He twice won an Oscar for direction, as well as the Irving Thalberg Memorial award, and has a star on the walk of fame.

Whenever I’m in a state of filmic confusion, I usually consult Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema. Turning to the entry on George Stevens, I discovered SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR isn’t even listed (though the title is included, without comment, in the back). The only reference I could find on my shelves was in The International Dictionary of Films & Filmmakers, which my father had bought for me at the local dollar store a few years back. Screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen ( I REMEMBER MAMA, THE CAT PEOPLE) had the following to say: “He was chided for his constant overshooting, and said he could make a picture on time and not exceed the budget. He made a woman’s story, SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR, and the only thing that distinguishes it is that it looks as if it exceeded neither its budget nor its shooting schedule.” I hate to disagree with Mr. Bodeen, who was responsible for some of my favorite films, but for this viewer, the visual style of SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR looks quite experimental for a mainstream Hollywood production from the early 1950’s.

A curtain slowly opens before a sold out theatre as seen from the stage while the pit orchestra begins to play. Superimposed over this image is the face of a woman with infinitely sad eyes. She moves in what seems like slow motion as the lights of Times Square at night, strobing whites against an inky black sky, overwhelm the vision of her pale, somber face. An unknown man is riding past the Broadway theatres in a taxi, the pulsing marquee lights dancing round him as he nervously glances through the window. He gets out in front of a slightly run down hotel, the neon sign “LIQUORS” poised over his head as if in warning.

The man is Alan Miller (Ray Milland) a recently sober advertising executive past his prime, who has answered a call to Alcoholics Anonymous from Billy (Harry Bellaver, a remarkable character actor who helped found Actor’s Equity), the elevator operator at the hotel. The person in need is Jenny Carey (Joan Fontaine), a young actress of promise with the opening night jitters, who instead of showing up at the theatre to perform, has drowned her feelings of inadequacy in drink. (The image of a curtain rising on a first night performance is what Jenny saw in her mind’s eye just before losing consciousness.)

Alan hesitates, telling Billy that a woman should be helping Jenny, not him. But Jenny is in such obvious need that Alan enters her room, gingerly makes his way among the empty bottles to her bed where she is lying in a stupor and manages to get her into the shower. Jenny, of course, only wants enough help so that she can drink more. “When did you last eat?” Alan asks. Jenny doesn’t remember. She tries to grab a bottle of gin, but Alan pulls it away. “You don’t want this stuff,” he says, with the slightest intimation of a smile on his lips. “What you want is a Champagne fizz.”

SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR is a film about glances. The dialogue is mostly delivered in whispers, so that one is forced to listen carefully. Rather than the dramatic peaks and valleys of a typical Hollywood film, SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR can be seen as a character study, or more specifically, what exists between two people in all of its diversity.

Alan manages to get Jenny out of the hotel and into a restaurant with the promise of champagne, which he then sends away. Over food, they begin to talk and discover they have something in common, a sensitivity, maybe even an innate gentleness, frustrated by the linear demands of the world around them. They also share a sense of failure, while everyone else is happily participating in the post-World War II orgy of success. Jenny, in particular, is fearful of performing in New York because her former lover, acting coach Tony Collins (Richard Derr) might be watching. It’s not something that can be expressed in words without falling into an inappropriate sentimentality, but Alan feels a connection with Jenny in a way he never has with Edna (Teresa Wright, in possibly her most cogent performance), his more grounded wife, with whom he has had two children.

Alan tells Jenny they won’t be seeing each other again, but nonetheless leaves his card on her dressing table. What ensues is not exactly a love story, but instead a series of small, personal crises for both of them. They try to get in touch with each other unsuccessfully, yet are buoyed by the very existence of their shared sensibility; their separate lives and accidental encounters seen as overlapping narratives through the use of slow dissolves, tied together in thought, if not in space, the individual plot elements less a story arc and more a stream of consciousness.

It’s true that the long dissolves so characteristic of Mr. Stevens’ A PLACE IN THE SUN are also present in SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR, except in the previous film, this technique manages to freeze the characters in place, while here the overlapping images erase distance by showing Alan and Jenny living their separate lives simultaneously. When they do finally see each other, it’s at a party specifically set up by Baker (Douglas Dick), the boy wonder of Alan’s advertising agency, who has seen them together. He invites both Jenny and her ex-lover, Tony (Richard Derr), in the hopes that Alan will lose his nerve and start drinking again. Instead, Alan takes Jenny aside to save her from Tony’s verbal attack, which raises Edna’s suspicions.

SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR was the first film about Alcoholics Anonymous. Because of the presence of Ray Milland, the film is usually seen as a sequel to THE LOST WEEKEND (for which Mr. Milland won an Oscar). Stylistically, the two films have very little in common. THE LOST WEEKEND, although shot on location in New York City with a documentary-like rigor, is structured in a classical Hollywood story arc, following an alcoholic from denial through sickness to recovery.

In SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR, the idea of recovery is seen as a day by day process; not so much part of the story line, as reflected in the film’s style. It’s true that Alan and Jenny are constantly being offered booze by a myriad of characters, but the film implies there is more to recovery than just saying no; it’s also the world one lives in. Instead of the typical happy ending, this is a film in a conditional mood, bridging a feeling of regret with the notion of possibility. Through the use of a complex system of overlapping fades, SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR captures what appears to be coincidence, but is in actuality congruence, revealing in the instant when one image replaces another, the notion of recovery as a continuum, one moment in time not by itself, but as a conversation with others, even if they are not present.

The screenplay was written by Dwight Taylor, the originator of The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” column, who is mostly remembered today for his work on the Astaire-Rogers films at RKO, in particular THE GAY DIVORCEE, TOP HAT and FOLLOW THE FLEET. Supposedly, the character of Jenny performed by Ms. Fontaine was based on Mr. Taylor’s mother, Laurette Taylor, a legendary Broadway actress whose intuitive and spontaneous performance style was a huge influence on generations of performers who came after her, such as Katherine Hepburn, Maureen Stapleton and Uta Hagen. Ms. Taylor was also a famous drunk, missing opening nights and even entire seasons because of her addiction.

While reading James Agee’s collected film criticism, I came upon a description of Joan Fontaine as resembling “a Vassar girl on a picket line.” By this I assume Mr. Agee meant a sense of earnestness and empathy within a clear-eyed calm. It’s that calmness that initially makes it difficult to accept Ms. Fontaine’s full-blooded performance. What I find particularly extraordinary about her gestures and glances (especially in a scene at Penn Station, where she is confronted by Mr. Milland) is their precision, elevating her presence from the specifics of a fictional character into a state of being.

In SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR, Mr. Milland is almost unrecognizable, so deeply has he penetrated the psyche of Alan Miller. It’s interesting comparing the hesitant, blurred manner in which he speaks here, as opposed to DIAL M FOR MURDER, a film released in May 1954, where his voice contains a constant touch of irony and sophistication, every syllable beautifully rounded, like the bubbles in a glass of champagne.

Because Mr. Stevens wasn’t allowed to shoot every scene innumerable times, it’s possible that many master shots were allowed to go on much longer than usual. In particular, this method results in a startling deep focus long take of a tree-trimming scene during which Alan Miller’s marriage seems to be disintegrating. “You were a lot more fun when you were drinking,” his wife Edna, says. “Sometimes a person can be too sober.” All the while, his young sons attempt to keep a ladder from toppling over in the distance, which is staged with such a polished sense of timing, that one doesn’t even notice the metaphor until the scene is over.

This is a film that seems to have fallen through the cracks of time. Directed by George Stevens at a pivotal moment in his career when he was changing from artfully made genre films to literary subjects that exuded a sense of importance, not to mention a lugubriousness of style, SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR, filled with the kind of modest virtues that Mr. Stevens had made the defining characteristic of his work before the Second World War, is a film that completely takes one by surprise.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

film: ****
image: ***
sound: ***

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