The Catered Affair (1956): A Review

An overlooked example of mid-20th-century social realism, The Catered Affair (dir. Richard Brooks, 1956) has quite the kitchen-sink pedigree. The film is adapted from a teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky and features Ernest Borgnine in a leading role, both of whom had just won Academy Awards for their work on the working class love story Marty (dir. Delbert Mann, 1955). On the more sensational end, director Richard Brooks had come to prominence for writing and directing Blackboard Jungle(1955), the seminal film about conflicts at an inner-city school.

The Catered Affair marries those two strains of realism, pairing family drama with energetic blocking and dialogue, and the result is a touching, if somewhat clumsy, depiction of life. At the movie’s center is Aggie Hurley (played by Bette Davis), a middle-aged housewife in The Bronx whose husband, Tom (Borgnine), is a cab driver who’s been saving money for years to purchase his own taxi medallion. Their daughter Jane (Debbie Reynolds) has just announced her marriage to her longtime boyfriend Ralph (Rod Taylor). The young couple would like to have a small, quick wedding so they can fit their honeymoon into Ralph’s teaching schedule, but Aggie would prefer that her daughter have the big fancy reception “with all the trimmings” that Aggie never got to have. Money is tight, though, and the process of planning the wedding brings on more conflict than anyone involved had bargained for.

In a brilliant bit of casting, the filmmakers decide to place glamour icon Bette Davis at the heart of action. There’s a productive irony in seeing Davis in the role of a woman who yearns both for the finery that’s beyond her social class and for the passionate love that her marriage to Tom denies her. Not only does the casting of Davis highlight the tragedy in Aggie’s character, but also it sells the audience on the hope that, just maybe, the Hurleys will be able to pull this affair off. If Bette Davis isn’t capable of giving her daughter a ritzy blowout, well, then who exactly is?

It’s Debbie Reynolds, however, who is the real revelation of the film. Primarily known for her roles in comedic films such as Singin’ in the Rain (dir. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952)—or, if you’re my age, as the grandmother in the Halloweentown TV movies—Reynolds shows a startling amount of dramatic range throughout the film. She’s still got that light charm about her, especially when Jane and Aggie are out dress shopping. But her facial expressions during tense family moments help sell the scenes; like the audience, she is so often caught between concern for and exasperation with everyone else on screen. And the one time she let’s her temper flare, when she decides to just call the whole shebang off, is the single most cathartic moment in the film.

The film is strongest in its first act, which counterintuitively is also the least filmic portion of the movie. There’s a real sense of commotion when Jane announces her wedding plans, not because it’s earth-shattering news, but because life in a cramped, lower middle class apartment is naturally chaotic. Characters are constantly entering and exiting the scene like they’re walking on and off stage, which means that everyone has to keep restarting their conversations to catch the newcomers up. The use of static long takes is similarly more theatrical than filmic, but those shots serve to underscore just how little breathing room is to be found in the apartment.

Unfortunately, The Catered Affair suffers from some structural problems which blunt its emotional impact. Most notable among these issues is the role of Aggie’s brother Jack (Barry Fitzgerald). Uncle Jack primarily functions as a source of conflict for the rest of the family: he’s hurt about not being invited to Jane’s original wedding ceremonies, so he’s one of the motivations for having a big affair in the first place. But he also has a subplot involving his lady friend (Dorothy Stickney) that in theory should flesh out his character, but it’s so thin that it merely pads out the run time.

Further, the editing is less than inspired, and in some places actively detracts from the picture. Scenes will sometimes cut between two differently lit shots, briefly making it difficult to track the geography of the image. The use of transition effects is uniquely at odds with the staid realism of the rest of the picture; I suspect that fading to and from black, or even straight cuts, would have served the project better. There’s also a glaring continuity error during the dinner with Ralph’s parents, where Ralph teleports to the opposite side of the table. Normally, such a slip would be inconsequential, but the filmmakers repeatedly frame him and Jane tightly together while their respective families flaunt their wedding gift ideas. Their unified powerlessness to direct their own wedding is central to the scene, so to break that visual image is uncharacteristically sloppy.

Despite that, on the whole I’d say that The Catered Affair has a great eye for detail. I love, for example, how the light bulb hanging in the Hurley’s kitchen flickers when someone shuts the door to the ice box, or how a fellow tenant just happens to be carrying groceries upstairs when the Hurleys are about to start arguing. And I appreciate how, when the family is looking for a banquet hall to rent, the filmmakers decide to have someone sweeping up paper streamers from a previous engagement. The film’s world feels lived in, and if there’s one sense any kitchen sink drama must achieve, it’s that. For all the film’s faults, I’ve seen seen few classic Hollywood pictures that manage to capture daily life so effortlessly.

Seeing the Beating Heart: Adapting Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” for Film

As as adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Tell-Tale Heart (dir. Jules Dassin, 1941) strays a fair bit from its source material’s plot, mostly in terms of resolving ambiguities. Notably, whereas Poe’s story (which you can read here) leaves both the narrator’s motive and his relationship to the old man ambiguous, Dassin’s short film casts the protagonist (played by Joseph Schildkraut) as a decades-long victim of abuse who is suddenly driven to kill his alleged caretaker (Roman Bohnen). And I will say up front that I believe that additional information ultimately weakens Dassin’s The Tell-Tale Heart as a work. The uncertainty that surrounds the narrator’s account of the crime, so central to the original story, is lost in the process and replaced with a fairly mundane tale of revenge.

However, while the short film is not the best translation of Poe’s plot, I think Dassin and his crew capture something far more important about the source material. They find ways to bring the narrator’s mental state to the screen.

Before we can talk about how the filmmakers accomplish that task, we need to talk about Poe’s story. The opening lines of “The Tell-Tale Heart” give the reader an immediate sense of how the narrator perceives the events he’s lived through. And when I say “perceive,” I mean that in a literal sense, for the narrator is keenly aware of his senses:

True! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses  –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?

For those of you who have read the story, you know why that fine sense of hearing is significant: the narrator would have gotten away with the old man’s murder if he hadn’t heard the sound of the old man’s beating heart beneath the floorboards. That heartbeat from beyond the grave is almost certainly a manifestation of the narrator’s guilty conscience, but what makes the narrator’s breakdown palpable is the possibility that what he’s hearing is real. And if there’s one type of sensation which language is best able to convey to the reader, it’s sound.

“The Tell-Tale Heart” is remarkably vague on the visual aspects of the story, with the old man’s eye (“the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it”) being the one standout detail. The rest of the story’s world is sketchy, with some floorboards here, a bathtub there, but nothing too evocative. By contrast, the story’s soundscape is incredibly vivid. The beating heart is likened to “such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton” (incessant, but muffled), while the old man tries to pass off the creaking in his room as “the wind in the chimney,” “a mouse crossing the floor,” and “a cricket which has made a single chirp.” There’s nothing vague about this material; Poe’s imagery is detailed and specific.

Still, all the above devices work on the level of labeling, rather than evoking. Intellectually, I can understand what a muffled watch or a scurrying mouse sounds like, but the phrases used to describe them don’t necessarily make one feel those sounds. No, Poe achieves that feat through the rhythm of his prose and the repetition of words and phrases. Much of the story relies on short, staccato sentences and parallel syntax, which suggest the regular beat of the human heart. The block quote above provides some obvious examples: “very, very dreadfully,” “not destroyed…not dulled…,” “I heard…I heard…,” etc. But this dark music works in more subtle ways, too. Consider the start of the third paragraph. The short, even sentences are readily apparent, but note the driving meter as well: “Now this is the point. You fancy me madMadmen know nothing. But you should have seen me.” Read aloud, this stretch of two-beat sentences is, well, maddening. Imagine, then, what reciting the whole story must feel like.

That ceaseless rhythm is, I think, central to feeling the narrator’s mental state, and not merely to understanding it. Just as the narrator becomes fixated on the beating heart, on his guilty conscience, so the reader becomes fixated on the beating heart of the prose. More than the murderous act or the narrator’s madness, that is the true horror of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” So how do the filmmakers preserve that rhythm through the adaptation process?

Let’s get the obvious techniques out of the way. The sound mix emphasizes such auditory elements as the old man’s footsteps and the ticking clock, sounds which are short and regular. They of course prefigure the beating heart which will take prominence after the murder. Also, the film’s score tends to highlight the percussion instruments and uses short, repeating phrases to underline the tension during the police interrogation scene. These are approaches I expected to see (hear?) coming into the film, and they’re also the ones I’m least interested in.

No, film is a visual medium, and I wanted to see, actually see, the story’s rhythm rendered in visual terms, whether through acting, editing, set design, or what have you. I’m not going to say it’s easy, mind, but it’s what I was looking for.

From the film’s opening shot, I knew they’d nailed it.

TTH1941-Loom

We first see our protagonist working at a weaver’s loom, mechanically moving and adjusting the various parts, the shuttle and the batten, back and forth as the camera slowly zooms in on him. That particular prop on its own would be enough to start with, but the protagonist’s relationship to the device finishes the job. He’s focused on his task, almost emotionless, until the camera reaches that all-important instrument: his ear. In a single shot lasting about 25 seconds, the filmmakers key the viewer into the physical rhythms of the picture, telling them to “listen” for those patterns.

As the film progresses, we see similar visual rhythms, such the robotic process by which the protagonist oils the hinges on the old man’s bedroom door, or in a scene borrowed from the source material, the way he drags the chair back and forth over the floorboards concealing the old man’s corpse. It’s so pervasive a technique that when the filmmakers break from the pattern, the effect is unsettling. There’s a sequence in which the protagonist, while speaking to the police, hears that tell-tale beating sound. He looks around the room and finds that the clock’s pendulum is motionless and the faucet is no longer dripping. In that moment, he knows every mundane explanation for the sound—every proverbial mouse, cricket, and chimney gust—is untenable. We the audience see the instant where his conscience becomes too much to bear. That, right there, is solid film-craft.

So, if you’re looking to watch some Poe adaptations this Halloween, give this one a chance in between your Vincent Price and Bela Lugosi vehicles. Like the best adaptations of his work, while it plays loose with some plot elements, it captures the experience of reading the story exceptionally well.

Also, it’s only 20 minutes long. You have time to watch it this month, trust me.

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Thank you for reading! If you’re in the mood for some more unsettling cinema, a while ago I dedicated a post on this blog to celebrating the “inspired unpleasantness” of Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M. Or, if you’d prefer something (marginally) lighter, here’s a short reflection on why I find murder mysteries relaxing. Happy Halloween!

The Inspired Unpleasantness of “M”

The notion that art can be aesthetically successful without giving the audience pleasure, as conventionally understood, is nothing new. We’ve been crowding into horror movies and tear-jerkers since the silent era of cinema. We’ve been grappling with the paradox of tragedy since Aristotle’s Poetics. I’ve even mentioned the problem on this blog before when discussing my love of murder mysteries. In most great artworks to which the paradox applies, though, one seems to derive something that resembles a traditional pleasure from them: excitement, emotional connection, even enlightenment. I don’t get any of that from (dir. Fritz Lang, 1931). What I get is pure, life-draining unpleasantness.

When I call M an unpleasant film, I’m not really talking its subject matter, though that too is disturbing. The film follows a German city’s attempts to capture a serial killer (played by Peter Lorre) who has been targeting young girls. The police, the citizenry, even the crime bosses: everyone has an interest in bringing the killer to justice, yet he has eluded their capture for months, and as the film starts there’s been no progress on the case. We enter the story to see a world already in a constant state of alert, a world where the killer’s presence is so pervasive that children sing counting-out rhymes based on his exploits.

When written out in like that, the premise of M reads more like a particularly bleak episode of Criminal Minds than like a probing work of psychological horror. Granted, most crime procedurals don’t boast the acting talents of Peter Lorre, who is capable of transitioning from controlled calculation to bulging-eyed mania so gradually it’s difficult to notice. (His near-meltdown trying to order a drink at a café is just as powerful as his total meltdown during his trial-by-angry-mob.) Nor do such shows capture an entire city’s paranoia so well as this film, in which the accusation “Kindermörder” (child murderer) is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, waiting for the slightest provocation to slip out.

But M is not remotely graphic in how it handles the killer’s violence. In fact, it doesn’t even depict his crimes, only the build-up and the aftermath. The filmmakers observe a certain level of bienséance here (or whatever the German-language equivalent is). There is little luridness beyond the premise; all such material is left to suggestion. We are not shown, for example, the actual murder of Elsie Beckmann at the start of the film, but only the evidence that she’s gone: her ball rolling in the fields, her balloon entangled in the power lines.

Of course, that bienséance ultimately makes the killer’s work more horrifying, not more palatable. We as viewers are denied full knowledge of the murders, and are thus forced to imagine how they were executed, or else force the thought of doing so from our minds. We may know the killer’s identity, but in terms of confronting the full truth of the murders, we’re hardly better off than the grieving parents and the police commissioner. Unnerved and unenlightened, what can we do but speculate about what happens in that mysterious world off-screen?

“Off-screen,” as it happens, is a very important location in M. Not only is that where most of the film’s violence occurs (either during the story proper or as part of the backstory), but also it’s where much of film’s dialogue is spoken. M was Fritz Lang’s first sound film, and with it Lang experimented with the synchronicity, or rather the lack of it, between sound and image. Famously, Mrs. Beckmann’s calls for Elsie when she doesn’t come home from school carry far beyond her body, out in to the vacant city streets—a common technique today, but a novel one for 1931. Conversations between characters in the “here” and “present” play out over imagery from “there” and “the past,” leaving the audience uncertain as to where we really are in time and space. Few things are so unpleasant as such disorientation.

Just as pioneering (and upsetting) as the mismatch of sound and image are the places where Fritz Lang omits sound entirely. Street scenes will play out with no audio track whatsoever: no dialogue, no ambient noises, no sound effects, no even a score. We see people walking about, cars rushing by, matter slamming into matter, and we expect some response from the universe. Instead, we hear nothing, and one wonders whether even the laws of physics have been corrupted in the city’s panicked state. To hear the killer’s trademark whistling of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” is almost a relief in these circumstances. It is reassurance, for a moment, that the world is not wholly broken. At least, it is until you remember what that whistling portends.

Finally, one cannot escape the context in which was produced. Politically: the Nazis were only a few years away from seizing power in Germany, and the film takes a rather dim view of the masses who would enable their rise. (To quote Roger Ebert’s appraisal: “In searching for words to describe the faces of the actors, I fall hopelessly upon ‘piglike’.”) Artistically: I learned from Ben Mankiewicz’s post-screening remarks on TCM that Lang was not always humane to his actors; for M he had Lorre thrown down a stairwell a dozen times for the sake of the getting the best take. Lorre never forgave Lang for that, and I’m skeptical that film history ought to forgive him, either.

There is nothing exciting about the horror of M, nothing like the sudden gasp of a haunted house jump-scare or the rough jostling of a roller coaster. It is film that deadens the audience, fills it with a dread that the members will carry with them beyond the theater. is a fantastic film. But if someone claims to have enjoyed watching it, I’ll be struck dumb.

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Thanks for reading! I’d you’d like to read more of my thoughts on film, then you might enjoy the piece I wrote about how Stagecoach establishes its interpersonal conflicts.

All Aboard: How “Stagecoach” Establishes Conflict

Viewed on a scene-by-scene basis, Dudley Nichols’s screenplay to John Ford’s seminal Western Stagecoach (1939) might seem a bit unfocused. The film, which follows a stagecoach racing across the territories out west, has an episodic quality to it. Each stage along the journey from Tonto to Lordsburg presents some set of obstacles: the unexpected absence of military personnel at Dry Fork, a passenger’s childbirth at Apache Wells, an Apache attack at Lee’s Ferry, etc. Really, it is one thing after another. If a student showed me this story as an outline, I’d be tempted to suggest that they “pick a direction and stick with it.”

Yet, when viewed as a whole, Stagecoach feels remarkably tight for what amounts to a road-trip movie. Each turn in the narrative comes across as the natural extension of some previous event, as though the new developments were not just chronologically but also causally linked. So how do Nichols and Ford make the journey’s episodes into a coherent story? Simple: they spend time establishing why each person has boarded the stagecoach.

Continue reading “All Aboard: How “Stagecoach” Establishes Conflict”