Thursday, August 3, 2017
Deep down, part of the problem is all the waiting. You know you need to stop doing it but you can’t. And there’s nothing you can do about it except everything imaginable. But for now, let’s go back a very long time to way before the world ended, maybe longer than I want to admit, since it makes sense to start there. The occasion was a massive Billy Wilder retrospective at the Film Forum in New York which for all I know I’ve mentioned before. The double bill that day was ONE TWO THREE and LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, two Wilder films I had never seen although that aside I can’t think of any particular reason for pairing them together. The problem, which anyone familiar with the films will understand, was that I saw ONE TWO THREE first. Fairly close on the list to being one of my favorite Wilders by now it’s definitely one of the fastest, hell it’s one of the fastest movies ever made. So following it up with a much slower, virtually languid romance may not have been ideal. But that’s the way I saw them that day and that’s the way it goes. And now that LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON has been released on Blu via Warner Archive that’s about the best possible reason to finally see it again after all this time. In addition to its considerably staid pacing, there’s a slightly different feel compared to other Wilder films as if he’s trying to find a balance between misanthropy and romance that would actually make sense in his filmic world. It’s so reflective at times that it’s practically about the very act of reflecting. Even now I can’t entirely get on board with all of it but if you don’t insist on comparing it to the Wilder I know and love that feels more intent on cutting into the way our works really works, falling into its melancholic rhythms becomes a little easier. Looking at it now is a reminder of what it’s like to fight your way through a cynical world, one in which lying might be the only way to make it through the day. While waiting for someone to come around.
Parisian cello student Ariane Chavasse (Audrey Hepburn), forever curious about the cases her private detective father Claude (Maurice Chevalier) is working on, overhears him talking to a new client known only as Monsieur X (John McGiver) who has been told of his wife’s affair with rich American playboy Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper). When the client proclaims that he will show up at their rendezvous and shoot Flannagan (“In that case, you leave me no choice. I must insist on being paid right now,” Claude Chavasse calmly replies), Ariane becomes desperate to stop this and when she is unable to get the police to help shows up at the hotel suite herself. She prevents the crime but her mysterious nature intrigues Flanagan who insists on seeing her again. They do and have a brief, passionate affair even though she refuses to tell him so much as her name and he soon departs to continue his jet set life. When Flanagan returns to Paris a year later and they meet again she not only still keeps her name secret to keep his interest begins telling him stories about her supposed love life based entirely on what she’s read in her father’s voluminous files of adultery. But the more stories Flanagan hears from her, the more determined he becomes to find out who this mysterious girl really is.
The opening spells it out: an establishing shot of Paris which is revealed to be a mere drawing, followed by multiple drawings of other views of the city displayed out on a Parisian street. In other words, within the real city is a fantasy city, whichever one you want it to be. It’s a visual statement of theme of the sort that we don’t usually get from Wilder but maybe he’s saying that this is the Paris he remembered from when he first encountered it long ago or possibly even the one he wished had always been there. For me LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON doesn’t belong in the upper echelon of Wilder films; there’s a grace to its style that is insistent about itself but it never seems to flow in the right way even though the veritable catalog of preoccupations on display makes it essential. It also marked the beginning of his collaboration with co-writer I. A. L. Diamond and except for the immediate follow-up WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, the partnership would continue all the way to the end with 1981’s BUDDY BUDDY. So something different is felt here, a definite shift away from the strain of certain mid-50s Wilder titles with a sudden ease felt to the storytelling as if settling in to a style that fits, finding a comfort level to this new approach that makes it clear the movie is in no rush to get away from itself.
It’s still a black & white world, not the hard-bitten one of DOUBLE INDEMNITY, SUNSET BOULEVARD and ACE IN THE HOLE but one that’s more romantic in its accepting of the very concept of loneliness, as if dreaming of a grand romance that never quite took place. From this point on there’s a good deal of reflection in Wilder’s films with characters trying to come to terms with what never was or will never be. They’re facing middle age or beyond, often while staying in hotels somewhere feeling like the world is passing them by as the realization hits that they may be forgotten. Of course, for much of LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON the male lead never seems to have these concerns and just about the biggest problem that anyone has ever had with the film involves the age difference between the leads, specifically Audrey Hepburn being 28, presumably playing younger, and Gary Cooper being 56 and looking at least a few years older. It’s almost impossible to think about the film without acknowledging that, yes, he looks too old to be playing this rogue even if he does carry with him enough self-confidence to be believable as a rakish world-class playboy. Wilder’s first choice was Cary Grant, although I can never quite see him in this role regardless of age and let’s save the issue of Audrey Hepburn being paired with so many older men in her films for another time. The movie certainly doesn’t ignore the matter and the story seems designed for that anyway. “Aren't you a little too young,” he asks her. “Aren't you a little too old,” she says back to which he understandably replies, “That hurts.” Which doesn’t excuse or justify it, only to point out what the story is, of someone older trying to hold onto the younger person looking up to them and in a sense yearning for the past. It can be a nice dream, anyway.
Clearly meant as a tribute to the sparkling champagne feel of the films of Ernst Lubitsch, Wilder’s hero and teacher, director of the NINOTCHKA screenplay that he wrote with Charles Brackett, LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON was also the second of three 1957 releases for Wilder coming between the gargantuan THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS and the compact, much more characteristic WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. After the likes of SABRINA and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, each based on popular Broadway shows, LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (screenplay by Wilder & I. A. L. Diamond, based on the novel by Claude Anet; the novel had been previously filmed in Germany as ARIANE in 1931) feels closer to his own personal style for the first time in a few years with an extra level to all the melancholy. You’d expect technicolor from a romantic comedy make in 1957, not the black & white look courtesy of DP William Mellor (who also shot A PLACE IN THE SUN and GIANT, among others) and while there’s a coyness to LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON in its opening narration by Maurice Chevalier that introduces us to romance in Paris (one of multiple such Wilder beginnings) along with the husband and wife known only to us as Monsieur and Madame X as if the film doesn’t want to reveal the names of all involved to us, there’s a gloom over much of it that almost overrides the humor of the piece. Flannagan decides to call Ariane “Thin Girl” since she won’t give him her name but it could easily be Sad Girl, since she spends most of the film desperate for connection with just about anybody, trying to achieve some form of happiness in a world where it seems like everything has already been decided. Her semi-boyfriend from the conservatory never seems interested in her at all until she begins to lose interest in him and the cello she carries around everywhere is like an albatross; the film seems to be saying her art is holding her back from life.
The way it plays, LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON is almost too relaxed at times to the point that it feels like a few laughs are missed due to deliberately lackadaisical line readings. Technically it’s a comedy but some of the best dialogue exchanges seemingly waft into the frame and out again, lost in the mist, trying to infuse itself with the spirit of Lubitsch as if Wilder wants nothing more than for that feeling to somehow survive into the era of rock n’ roll. Instead of floating through the air like some of the best of Lubitsch does it drifts in a rowboat, just as the characters do at one point, almost not moving at all. Individual moments have zip and the dialogue often brings just the right flavor particularly Ariane’s call to a policeman who refuses to put a stop to matters involving adultery in Paris, of all cities. But Lubitsch films back in the 30s which featured the likes of Cooper and Chevalier were around 90 minutes, sometimes 80. LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON stretches out to 129 and you feel every minute of it. The extra running time does give the film a certain added weight beyond the frothiness but maybe it’s almost asking too much of the simple story of the “Two people who met between planes,” she says, trying to talk herself out of thinking anything else of it. It’s missing the acidity of the best parts of SABRINA; at the very least, Hepburn and Bogart in that film felt like they were in the same frame together. You can feel the movie reaching for the great strain of romance and it doesn’t feel as attached to the schematics of the plotting as a few later Wilder-Diamond scripts do but it still feels like it’s trying to pack too much of significance into the material, like the key music cue near the very end which seems deliberately turned up loud in an attempt to make it the most romantic gesture of all time. The exact specifics of their relationship are kept oblique enough that maybe no one in the late 50s was offended but some dialogue muddles things enough that it’s unclear what exactly their relationship has been and what we should even want it to be.
Some of the best bits of business are isolated within scenes like Gary Cooper on a Dictaphone, yammering away like Americans in Wilder films sometimes do along with a very early version of the importer-exporter joke from SEINFELD decades later. Plus there’s the familiar Wilder plotting of someone in disguise only here it’s the simplest and in some ways most complex version of it since it’s merely Ariane as herself but not revealing anything at all, not even giving away her name, afraid she’s simply too dull for a man like this. “I baffle you?” she asks him at one point, unable to believe it. The best moments are so crystalized in their elegance that I wish it could get a move on already—I guess all these years later even when I’m not watching it right after ONE TWO THREE there’s still the wish that it would pick up the pace a little. Elegance is wonderful but there’s a little too much starch in the film’s clothing and for a film involving trysts that have to be finished by a certain time, hence the title, it isn’t in any rush at all and, unusual for Wilder’s normally tight plotting, a few stray elements here like the woman in the suite next door to Flannagan could easily be dropped.
But touches like the close up of Hepburn framed against Cooper’s reflection have such an impeccable effect that for a few moments the mood the film is going for is achieved. It might be one of the most deliberate shots in all of Wilder who more often would go for the general oppressiveness of his framing even in CinemaScope. And the gypsy band that follows Cooper around through the film, essentially a musical Greek chorus, transforms from a mere running gag into the insistently romantic soul of the film when he begins to obsessively play the recording Hepburn has made listing off her ‘affairs’ over and over again over the course of an evening, nothing else in the world on his mind and the greatest excuse imaginable for drinking as much as possible. For once it feels like the perfect mixture of Wilder’s sensibilities with his hero Lubitsch and almost nothing else in the film has this effect, nothing else matches its pain while infusing it with the right sort of refinement (Cameron Crowe put it best: “Most directors would simply send the leading man to a bar. They are not Wilder.”). The word I think of when the film comes to mind is misty, a black & white feel that washes away in memory immediately after seeing it also how much of the time Gary Cooper is photographed keeping him in shadows and mist in an attempt to keep us from thinking too much about his age so it’s as if we never get a clear shot of his face and though the best moments sing the whole somehow congeals into an overly thick pudding. There’s an undeniably rich flavor to it but the details feel lost. The movie lives by its own code in its own world all according to Wilder’s belief in the romance of Paris, as if this is the only place on the planet where such a thing is even conceivable. And there’s not a moment of patience for Ariane’s humorless boyfriend who turns his nose up at the standard “Fascination” heard over and over through the film, saying it lacks any musical merit whatsoever. Whether it’s his youth or his stuffiness the movie knows that if you can’t love that piece of schmaltz, apparently designed to be nothing more than the last piece of music heard before making love, then can you really love anything at all. Or anyone.
When the final scene breaks away from all those interiors and emerges to a train platform outside suddenly the shift in location brings an all new energy to the film, a sudden immediacy that is undeniable and feels alive in a way the rest of the film doesn’t. Suddenly the romance between the two doesn’t feel clinical and there’s one close-up of Hepburn that is so heartbreaking I almost don’t know what to do with it. I’m still not sure if I buy the ending, whether narration meant to molly the code or not and like where the characters end up at the end of SOME LIKE IT HOT, here we have a case where the two leads that have fallen in love have barely even met as they head off at the end of the film, no idea who the other really is, no idea where they’re going. But, hey, nobody’s perfect. It’s a film more at home in the old world so naturally the man is the one who makes the final decision but at least it’s someone taking action. We live too much of life between planes, after all. Waiting for that next trip, for the right person to finally make that decision. LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON is a cynic trying desperately to believe, to allow for the possibility of love, of attachment, in all its truth and deception before it becomes too late and fitting for a film that is so much meant to be a tribute to Lubitsch which in itself is a form of going back to the past, it has no interest in the concept of Tomorrow. It’s merely a portrayal of the way things should be. How much the film really believes this I’m not quite sure, but it tries.
So much of the film is about close-ups of Audrey Hepburn anyway, about wanting to fall in love with her and the insanity of the men who won’t just as it’s about Wilder expressing the ultimate feeling of love through her and the grace that comes through whenever she’s onscreen. Even when she realizes that Gary Cooper is actually interested in her it’s her vulnerability, the desire to actually be a part of the world, that’s felt in every single one of her movements. Kept at such a distance in the shadows Gary Cooper is often in his own bubble apart from her and sticking a flower in his ear doesn’t do any good in making him seem any younger. But he finds his character in the beats between the dialogue with the split second he takes to consider the ad slogan “Pop in for a Pepsi” (since he works for Pepsi, it only makes sense that the lead character of ONE TWO THREE works for Coke; maybe that’s the reason for the double bill) smartly displaying his remove from everything around him. His devil may care nature so clearly espouses Wilder’s world view that when he actually begins to care about something, needing to find out about this girl, it plays. He just always seems way too old and there’s not much that can be done about that. Maurice Chevalier, representing all things French, suggests a nimbleness that the rest of the film never quite achieves but it still makes me wish that we could follow him and observe a few of his other cases when he’s on the job while John McGiver as Monsieur X, in just about his first film, perfectly captures the screwy cuckolded nature just a few steps behind everyone else. All he needs to do is learn about what Paris really is, the film seems to say, and he’ll be fine.
That’s the problem with eternal fantasies sometimes, eventually they get matched up with a truth that is going to grow more painful and maybe that’s why you wait. But it’s your own damn fault. Bosley Crowther raved about the film, calling it a “grandly sophisticated romance” to the point that you want to tell him to calm down already. Billy Wilder himself wasn’t as enthusiastic later on after its box office disappointment with the sad observation, “I got Coop the week he suddenly got old.” It’s possible that when LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON was released it may have been out of step with things. It certainly has nothing to do with the world now. Just as a film, it’s problematic and in some ways the imagery is also problematic what with all that mistiness as if it’s trying to hide what it really is but you’ve never see it look this stunning and kudos to Warner Archive on the new release. If anything, it’s one of the most underrated looking of all Wilder films and you can hardly blame him for mostly wanting to most stick to black & white for years after this. But going back to that day when I first encountered LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON immediately after ONE TWO THREE, it seems so long ago. It is. And I try really hard but I can’t quite recreate the memory in my head. There was even a woman I sat next to and in between films I talked to her about them. I never even found out her name either, so I’ll always wonder who she was. I wouldn’t mind recreating that day, to go back there knowing all I’ve learned since. Those days stay with you, after all. While you continue to wait.