Saturday, February 19, 2011

Beyond the Forest (1949)

Whether Film Noir is a genre, a mood, a style or a movement in American crime films of the 40s and 50s seems irresolvable. One reason for this is that the canon of noir has been established for a long while now and “noir” as such derives from the common features of the films which have been canonized. Movies like Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, Detour, Kiss Me Deadly, The Asphalt Jungle, Touch of Evil. A film like King Vidor’s Beyond the Forest has marginal similarities in terms of story with say, Double Indemnity and although it’s in black and white it has little of the crepuscular glamour typified in the work of John Alton. In its stark examination of the influence of social and environmental factors on personal character, it hearkens back to the period of American naturalism, of Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser rather than James M. Cain or Chandler or Hammett.

As such the film is little seen today although it retains its notoriety; for its critical and commercial failure, for being the target of a supercilious book on supposed “Worst Movies”, for being regarded by Bette Davis herself as “a terrible movie”; more felicitously, it is known for serving as a reference point in an extended colloquy in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, where George and Martha try to remember the identity of the film where Bette Davis utters the line, “What a dump!” They talk of various scenes in the film, such as the ending where Bette Davis’s character, suffering from peritonitis, nonetheless applies make-up and dresses up to finally go to “Chicago”.

With this assorted baggage one would expect Beyond the Forest to maintain some sort of interest but the film, like many of King Vidor's, is absent on DVD. The film itself offers good reasons for its harsh reception. Put it simply, it’s among the toughest and harshest American films since Stroheim’s Greed, unflinching in its portrayal of Rosa Moline, one of the frightening characters in American movies; so frightening that Bette Davis tried in vain to dial down the harshness of the characterization while Vidor was constantly upping the ante on production. The resulting tension between the director and actress which was widely publicized won the movie few favors, though as per Raymond Durgnat, it was one of Billy Wilder’s favourite films.

Beyond the Forest is set in Loyaltown Wisconsin, limned in a beautifully cut and economically narrated voiceover in the opening scene. The town revolves around the employment and business provided by a saw mill and its sole connection to big cities is a train track that is prominently featured in the town. At the beginning, the town is empty since everyone present is attending a murder trial, the accused being Rosa Moline who bursts into the screen from below the frame, screaming that she didn’t kill the victim and that she had no reason to. This segues into a flashback that lasts three-quarters of the film before returning back to the trial. The initial suspense of the film is the identity of the person murdered but already the voice-over directs us to the real focus of the film. It mentions that everyone in the town knew Rosa Moline, men, women, children and the main interest in the hearing is partly out of curiosity, what makes Rosa Moline different from other people. This curiosity is sustained right through the course of the film.

Being different from the others is the main quest of Rosa Moline’s life. Individualism was a theme that Vidor dealt with in several films from The Crowd through Show People, An American Romance and, of course, The Fountainhead. What makes Beyond the Forest unique is the ferocity with which it is embodied in Moline and how this ferocity is aggravated by the fact that the small town she lives in is in most respects a model community. Its residents are good neighbors and her husband is a dedicated community doctor and genuinely concerned and caring towards his patients and his wife.

Rosa Moline repays her husband's devotion by devising elaborate assignations with Neal Lattimer (David Brian), a playboy businessman from Chicago. The flashback begins by revealing the process by which Moline is able to manipulate people at her will. A tryst with Lattimer(who arrives via private plane) requires strategic deployment of her husband to an expectant mother(who's giving birth to her eighth child). Her husband's fishing friend Moose(Minor Watson) is easily distracted by a chance discovery of alcohol, placed exactly where Rosa expected him to find it. Rosa boasts later in the film that she has more brain in her fingertips than most of the townsfolk. She also has prowess with a shotgun which she promptly displays by murdering an innocent porcupine simply because she doesn't like the species.

Such charming character traits unloaded so swiftly one after the other is good example as any of King Vidor's peculiar qualities as a melodramatist. He painted in broad strokes and unsubtle images to depict a character's state. His most heightened touches in Beyond the Forest can register as garish or campy but they are also free of sensationalism and bad taste. Rosa Moline is a woman who thrives on hatred, for her environment, her town, her way of life and her marriage. She rebels against her fate but she also seems as a force of the wilderness herself. Like many of Vidor's figures she's firmly connected to her environment despite her hatred and revulsion for her lot in life. “When I think of the things I want," she says, "it’s like your stomach feels when it hasn’t any food in it.” Moline is driven by delusions of grandeur, commanded out of the basic human drives.

“I don’t want people to like me. Nothing pleases me more than when they don’t like me. It means I don’t belong.” – Rosa Moline

Beyond the Forest is closer to being a "woman's film" than a film noir. It's setting is provincial rather than urban, its sense of criminality comes less out of economic factors than a self-conscious desire to live out one's desires for romantic and personal self-fulfillment. What makes the film so much richer is the strong sense of the society which the characters live in. Rosa's dreams and desires are derived entirely out of consumerist material such as magazines and advertisements, her obsession with Chicago is summed up in the popular song of the same name(which Max Steiner outfits into a haunting, mocking refrain throughout the film). Her dislike for the town stems from the sawmill which serves as the economic backbone of the town. At night the fire, thrusting out of the chimney turret from the mill, illuminates the night sky, lighting her room and disturbing her sleep. Much as the film is focused on Rosa Moline, Vidor gives a strong sense of the economic structure of a small town and the hegemony enforced by bigger cities. Except for the one occassion in the film, Rosa has never Loyaltown to Chicago and yet its reach affects and transforms her character regardless of the distance at which she lives.

It is through this novelistic placement of the character in relation to her immediate and distant surroundings that Vidor is able to side with Rosa in viewing Loyaltown as a prison, keeping both her and the other town's characters in check. When Lewis Moline(Joseph Cotten) delivers the eight child of the woman, her husband remarks that it was only an hour before that he regretted and cursed his wife's pregnancy and yet is now happy and relieved. Rosa's all consuming hatred, her longing for "things I want" is her only defense, her only excuse for "always being different". A key scene is when Rosa tries to coddle money out of her husband so that she can visit Chicago. He claims to lack the money, which Rosa blames on his leniency to his patients payment of fees. Being the only GP of the town requires such leniency so as to maintain his practice. She cooly replies that she could do with less her required price.

The next scene, which follows Lewis walking past the town square to his building is framed in cuts which emphasize his linearity and confinement.

Every person Lewis passes by looks at him with unsteady, shifty faces. Rosa had asked all of them for the money Lewis had denied him. The first breach of her covert humiliation of her husband to the rest of society. Lewis is trapped and imprisoned in the same town as well. His image of a dedicated country doctor sparing him little in the way of hardship and ill-name as Rosa. His sense of personal responsibility being his only security, a thin security blanketing a barely restrained despair.

Rosa's own despair is unleashed when she finally does reach Chicago. This section is the high point of the film. In the way it subjectively depicts an urban landscape as an even greater instrument of compartmentalizing individuals than Rosa Moline's small town, Vidor is able to update The Crowd's criticism of urban society as a net of homogeneity to the more familiar post-war noir landscape. Rosa discovers that her charms and ingenuity, so overpowering in her small town, are subject to competitions from forces and distractions greater than she can command. Where manipulating her husband and his friend to meet with Lattimer was child's play, in Chicago she is unable to meet or phone the man. Lattimer's secretary keeps Rosa rooted in the waiting room.

She becomes one of the many aspects of Lattimer's life that he juggles and sets aside until he is most convenient to deal with it. When Rosa finally does barge in and confronts Lattimer's secretary, she is stymied to be told that he left through his private exit. Rosa Moline, provincial adulteress, is defeated and at a loss in Chicago. Vidor is able to telescope the completely pitiable sense of desiccation undergone by the character in a simple, long shot of Rosa walking away from the secretary's table down the corridor and into the elevator. Lattimer meets her later of course, to tell her that he's getting married to another girl. She runs out of the car and walks haphazardly into a club(where she's ejected for lacking an escort), she's mistaken for a streetwalker by a passerby and runs away from a police-officer. This hellish nightmare sequence ends when she bewails a taxi driver to take her back to the train station.

Humiliated, defeated and chastened, Rosa returns to Loyaltown in the pouring rain and returns to her husband's care. A conventional melodrama would end here. Now that Rosa is penitent, albeit out of disillusionment rather than remorse, she ought to buckle down, be a good wife and mother to her husband and become one of the community at last. A small, touching interlude reveals the hollowness of this reality as any genuine alternative. Rosa and Lewis watch lumberjacks at their work. The sounds of the woodcutting and the quickness with which the trees fall leads to Rosa to remark on the hollow longevity of trees, some of them having a mark that spells out, "it's your turn". Lewis says that with people, the mark could be death or any kind of ordeal. Rosa asks him if there is any such mark on her. When Lewis denies this, she reveals she is pregnant.

The range of emotions conveyed by Bette Davis in this scene, which presents Rosa at her softest and least contentious, allows Rosa to become a tragic figure. Especially when she replies "Not-glad and not-not-glad" in reply to Lewis asking her how she feels about it. She responds passively, with seeming hope, when Lewis promises that pregnancy would change her, make her a different person.

Rosa's brief flirtation with conformity ends when she meets Lattimer again. They resume their affair and Rosa decides to try and break away one last time. This relapse makes Rosa more ferocious and terrifying than before, her harshness becoming malign and self-destructive. Her character dissolves to a frightening spectacle of self-abnegation at the end of the film, Davis' performance sparing the audience none of the harshness and vitriol of the character. If James Cagney's Cody Jarrett in White Heat brought male angst and paranoia to its apocalyptic pitch, Davis' Rosa Moline implodes with the rage of her unfulfilled longings and passion, her vitality bursting till the very end.

*This piece was part of the "For the Love of Film Noir" Preservation Blog-A-Thon. Hosted by the Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films. To aid the preservation and restoration of films such as Beyond the Forest, follow this link...