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.

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.