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Missed Connections

The story of Waterloo Bridge (1940) has all the hallmarks of your archetypal romantic melodrama. We get the couple who meet by chance, who are then beset by bad timing and miscommunication, turning their courtship into a feature-length tragedy. They get occasional reprieves—e.g., reports of the soldier boyfriend’s death are greatly exaggerated—but that just makes their ultimate freefall so much more heartbreaking. This is efficient melodrama. It squeezed tears out of me like a fist around a sponge. It distills the pain of being madly in love, of believing that “love conquers all” when, in fact, pretty much anything can conquer love.

The female half of this equation is Myra, a would-be ballerina in WWI-era London, part of a troupe ruled by queen bitch Maria Ouspenskaya. She’s played by Vivien Leigh, fresh from Gone with the Wind, but her performance here is the opposite of her fickle, demonstrative Scarlett: it’s internal, concentrated in her eyes and delivered half in whisper. Myra’s a victim of her own inexperience, taking a single meet-cute as the signal to bank her whole life on this new relationship. The wartorn Real World, however, will not abide her lovesick impulsiveness, and therein lies the tragedy.

Her male counterpart is Roy (Robert Taylor), who endures a stint in a German POW camp, yet remains even more oblivious than Myra to the cruel realities of life. I’ve always found Taylor painfully bland, and here he’s like a puppy dog in uniform, with this blithe smile plastered on his face until the truth smacks him at the very last second. Taylor’s complacency befits a child of privilege, but he still feels miscast; he’s an earnest Nebraskan who’s ostensibly a scion of Scottish gentry and nephew to C. Aubrey Smith. (Smith, incidentally, was the face of British nobility. You can spot him wearing a suit of armor in my “One Hour Mark” image from Love Me Tonight.)

But Taylor’s banality doesn’t impinge too heavily on the film’s power. It was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, the Warner Brothers journeyman behind some of my favorite Pre-Code classics (like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Gold Diggers of 1933), and he knows well enough to rely on the situation’s innate unfairness, frequent close-ups of Leigh’s face, and resonant snippets from Swan Lake and “Auld Lang Syne.” The result is an elegant, suggestive movie that also works as a trusty emotional sledgehammer. Two kids in love, both bound to institutions that drag them apart. What could be sadder?

For me, the film hits its tearjerking zenith long before Myra descends into the demimonde around Waterloo Bridge. It’s when Roy learns that he’s shipping out a night early, and she insists on seeing him off at the plaform even though it’ll mean certain dismissal from the ballet. I expected to see a drawn-out goodbye, a kiss, anything. But instead Roy just wanders through the crowded station, glancing around for Myra until he’s forced to board. She gets there, sure, but with only enough time to wave and call his name as he chugs off for France. The moral here? No matter how bad circumstances will be, things can always get a little worse.

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The Curiosity of Strangers

As part of The Film Experience’s ongoing celebration of Tennessee Williams’ centennial, this week’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot entry is Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire. I hadn’t seen it in several years, so it was refreshing to again see Vivien Leigh as Blanche, the faded southern belle, and Marlon Brando as her boorish brother-in-law Stanley. The film takes place across two worlds—Stanley’s hard-edged, working-class reality and Blanche’s fuzzy, aristocratic dreams—and it’s amazing how cinematographer Harry Stradling visually differentiates them. (They can only meet, of course, in violence.)

My favorite image in the film comes straight out of Blanche’s distorted, histrionic world. She’s in the midst of her long breakdown, and at her diva-est. Mitch has just confronted her and torn the oh-so-symbolic paper lantern off the lightbulb, leaving Blanche alone with her illusions. She stumbles outside screaming, and suddenly all of New Orleans wants to see what’s going on.

I love this image because for once, Blanche is the center of the universe. Everything does revolve around her. She’s literally the center of attention. These faceless onlookers may not be gentlemen callers, but they’re the best she can do. At least they’re interested in her! In a perverse way, they’re the closest she has now to a flock of eager beaus. As always, that staircase looms there, just as twisted and ominous as everything else in this shot, and all the nearby strangers are cloaked in shadow, leaving Blanche as the only lit-up figure in the shot. It’s strikingly composed and eerily, horrifically beautiful.

Speaking of horrific beauty, I can’t not include Marlon Brando in all his monstrous virility. As Stanley, he’s the untamed beast who stalks Streetcar‘s frames as the madness grows, stooping to greater, more inhuman depths as he gets fed up with Blanche’s regal behavior. He’s attractive, yet repellent. Above all else, he’s common. So here’s my second-favorite shot from Kazan’s maniacal masterpiece of carnal intensity, southern style.

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