Don't be misled by the title or the sexy jacket photos: James Stewart and Kim Novak clinching in their overcoats; Elizabeth Taylor gazing soulfully skyward while Montgomery Clift leans yearningly against her on the back. James Harvey's exceedingly well-written, provocatively argued book is not about love <I>in</I> the movies; it's about love <I>for</I> the movies.

Don’t be misled by the title or the sexy jacket photos: James Stewart and Kim Novak clinching in their overcoats on the front; Elizabeth Taylor gazing soulfully skyward while Montgomery Clift leans yearningly against her on the back. James Harvey’s exceedingly well-written, provocatively argued book is not about love in the movies; it’s about love for the movies — “movie love” as defined by Pauline Kael in a 1998 quote Harvey takes as his epigraph. “In front of the screen I’m still a kid…we’re lovers who are let down all the time and go on loving.”

Harvey shares Kael’s boredom with middlebrow, “prestige” movies, her relish for genre films once dismissed as trash, her willingness to use personal experience to illustrate larger cultural points. His sentences don’t have quite the gleeful snap of Kael’s best, but his prose is also mercifully free of her more-than-occasional sloppiness and tendency to gush. He’s a playwright as well as a film scholar, so his dissections of 1950s movies from hardboiled late noir like “The Big Heat” to weepy extravaganzas like Imitation of Life” display a working artist’s intimate understanding of structure and of the covert messages lurking beneath the surface of a script.

Excavating for those messages, Harvey finds the landscape dramatically different from the 1930s and ’40s territory he surveyed with panache in his previous book, “Romantic Comedy.” Thrillers moved to the suburbs along with the postwar audience; “the look of fifties noir — with its shootouts on freeways, its heists of parking-lot banks — was daylight and sunlit.”

Sophisticated, grown-up heroines like Myrna Loy and Claudette Colbert were supplanted by stars who were “more girlish than womanly, whether the style was baby doll (Marilyn Monroe) or butch (Doris Day).” The men too were getting younger (as were moviegoers, Harvey reminds us), but the new boy-hero epitomized by Marlon Brando was “surprising … almost like a mutation in the idea of masculinity itself — with his deep, aching vulnerability, his sensitivity and alienation, and, above all, his hunger for love.” Such longings were rife in ’50s film, partly because the declining power of the Production Code made it possible to discuss and show sex more frankly.

“But if movies got franker, they also got dumber,” writes Harvey, who has little use for “the soap operas of ‘repression’ and ‘maladjustment'” he sees as typical of mainstream ’50s film. The movies he loves display “a certain impersonalism and refusal of self-pity, a respect for the final mystery in their characters and their materials.” In other words, they’re films in which form is at least as important as content, often made by “a director who by his ironies regularly undermined the kitsch affirmations of his own movies.” Yes, all the auteur-theory heroes are here, from Jacques Tourneur and Robert Siodmak to Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray.

In an extended comparison between Ray and his friend Elia Kazan, it comes as absolutely no surprise that Kazan’s films are judged “too frontal … what you feel and experience most immediately is what you get, and all you get” while the emotions in Ray’s work, “tortured and tangled as they are, can really haunt you.”

This critical stance is as much of a cultural cliche today as the earnest ’50s liberalism the author disdains in movies like Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones.” Fortunately, Harvey is too good a writer and too perceptive an analyst to be unduly constrained by theory. For every weird piece of special pleading like his unconvincing attempt to claim Nicholas Ray’s bizarre “Bitter Victory” as a “shattering and unrelenting film,” there’s a perceptive reappraisal like his subtle depiction of Max Ophuls’ “The Reckless Moment” (recently remade as “The Deep End”) as “one of the most moving and powerful films ever made about the modern American family.”

And there’s hardly ever a false note in the sharp observations that give fresh perspective on familiar figures and our relationship with them. “Was all that wattage, all that insistent radiance, just about sex?” he writes of Marilyn Monroe. “Probably it was. So you hoped anyway.”

Two sentences cogently differentiate 1940s Humphrey Bogart roles like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe from the violent, alcoholic screenwriter he plays in “In a Lonely Place”: “Is Dix really normal? Not question that could have been posed about those earlier Bogart heroes — except for a joke or a wisecrack.”

Harvey has a low-key way with a wisecrack himself, remarking slyly of the “famously crazy” “Johnny Guitar” that “the French, as you might expect, adored it.” But his particular gift is for the “act of heightened seeing” he praises in his favorite films, the ability to caress (whether visually or verbally) a character, a landscape, even a single object to reveal its essence and its fundamental mystery at the same time. As Harvey notes, “this is the language of love.”

Movie Love in the Fifties

Knopf; 450 Pgs.; $35

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James Harvey
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