Some films are unremittingly cheerful,
and some are unremittingly dark. I prefer films that combine
grit/darkness with virtue, even fragile virtue…not easy to pull off
without the viewer having the sense of a manipulative deus ex
Four films that span four decades and
fit this criterion are Dinner at Eight (1933), The Best
Years of Our Lives (1946), Detective Story (1951), and To
Kill A Mockingbird (1962). Of these four films, Detective
Story receives the least recognition and praise. There’s a
reason for this, but I’ll save that for later.
In some respects, these films couldn't
be more different, with each reflecting it’s own time and the
spirit of it’s own age; superficially, that is, as these films have
more in common than first meets the eye.
Dinner at Eight relates the
story of a group of people encountering life changing, even
existential, challenges. Some are transformed by these events. Some
are like brittle trees that cannot bend in the wind.
The Best Years of Our Lives
follows three World War II veterans, scarred by their experiences, as
they attempt to re-enter a society that desires to put the war behind
Detective Story puts a spotlight
on a tireless policeman, but also a damaged man who is determined to
impose his rigid code on the world.
To Kill A Mockingbird
demonstrates how much it costs to adhere to principle, and prompts us
to question if it’s worth it.
Dinner at Eight, directed by
George Cukor, features Marie Dressler (a consummate early Hollywood
character actress), John Barrymore (portraying a character eerily
like himself), Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery (invariably a
curmudgeonly character; in real life too by all accounts), Jean
Harlow, and Billie Burke (of subsequent Wizard of Oz fame).
Greed, adultery, alcoholism, and suicide are portrayed without much
subtlety in this pre-Code film. The blending of humor and drama works
in this film and doesn’t seem contrived. John Barrymore turns in a
powerful performance as a man who can’t summon the humility that’s
necessary for survival, much less transformation. Generosity manages
to bud, but not until events have reached a desperate state.
The Best Years of Our Lives
features Myrna Loy (my favorite actress), Frederic March, Dana
Andrews, Teresa Wright (wonderful in this film and in Hitchcock’s
Shadow of a Doubt), Virginia Mayo, and Harold Russell. This
film, directed by William Wilder, portrays war trauma physical
and psychological, alcoholism, adultery, and depression, depicting
something different than the triumphant return of America’s
“greatest generation”. One might predict the rebellious youth of
the 1960s emerging from the men who saw and experienced too much in
this terrible war. Despite the three men’s crosses, the viewer
witnesses a beautiful example of self-giving love in the challenging
romance of Homer (portrayed by the “amateur” actor, Harold
Russell, who lost both hands in the war and who won an Academy Award
for his performance in this film) and Wilma, profoundly influencing
the other two vets.
Detective Story, also directed
by Wilder, and considered by some to be in the film noir category,
features Kirk Douglas, Eleanor Parker, William Bendix, and Lee Grant.
I don't consider Detective Story film noir because of its
redeeming finale. The film tells the story of a seriously flawed New
York City detective, a modern Inspector Javert, whose world is turned
upside down by an ironical twist of fate. Portrayed in the film are
abortion, severe emotional trauma, and explicit cruelty, but
Detective Story is ultimately leavened by repentance and
To Kill A Mockingbird, directed
by Robert Mulligan, is considered one of the finest adaptations of a
great novel. The film stars Gregory Peck, and also features a young
William Windom as Atticus Finch’s courtroom opponent and a young
Robert Duvall (my favorite living actor) as Boo Radley. The child
actors who portray Scout, Jem, and Dill also turn in fine
performances. Mulligan transformed a Hollywood lot into a facsimile
of a gray and weary 1930s Alabama town. To Kill A Mockingbird
depicts blind prejudice, attempted murder, and ostensible rape, but
these evils are overshadowed by the grace, generosity, and courage of
several characters, chiefly Atticus Finch, who was one of the
inspirations for my character, TA Cole, in Terrapin.
What all these films have in common is
the implicit assumption that choices matter, and that life matters.
This truth may be represented by a man who puts everything he values
on the line for what he believes to be right, or by the suicide of a
man who will not accept the need to change. Nihilism may be exhibited
by characters in these films, but the films are not nihilistic.
Choices matter. Life matters.
Why is a film of the quality of The
Detective seldom lauded these days? The reasons may be that an
abortionist is depicted unfavorably, and the denouement features
explicit religiosity, two things that are scorned in the
Hollywood/media milieu. This fine film deserves more attention than
How can these four films be relevant in
a twenty-first century where soul-less electronic devices have become
our alter egos and where we are measured by what we have, what we
produce, and how we look? What can these films say to us moderns? As
with any great film or book, these four movies depict the sin that
resides in us often overwhelming us but, more importantly,
our potential to be authentically human and open to grace…to be who
we were created to be. Such stories are always relevant and worthy of