EDINBURGH 06 (pt1) : ‘Hold Back the Dawn’ (1941) / ‘Little Murders’ (1971)

Published on: August 22nd, 2006

HOLD BACK THE DAWN  ¦ USA 1941  ¦ Mitchell LEISEN  ¦ 112m (timed)  ¦ 8/10
Cracking, socially-conscious melodrama from the perpetually-underrated Leisen starring Charles Boyer: his slightly blurry-round-the-edges "Continental" charm make him perfect casting as a Romanian/French gigolo eager to escape the war ravaging his former "playgrounds" by emigrating to the USA. The closest he gets is a small border town in Mexico, where officials inform him he might have to wait up to 8 years for an entry-visa. An old flame from the Cote d'Azur (Paulette Goddard) informs Boyer he can "jump the queue" if he gets married to an American woman. And an ideal "mark" is already in the neighbourhood: idealistic, naïve schoolteacher Olivia de Havilland. No prizes for guessing that Boyer, who initially romances de Havilland with the basest of motives, ends up falling in love with her for real. This doesn't go down too well with Goddard, who has her own designs on Boyer and fills de Havilland in on his less-than-pristine past. But de Havilland's reaction takes everyone by surprise…

Written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, Hold Back the Dawn may well be the funniest tearjerking melodrama ever made. The dialogue is sharp and fast, and it's a delight listening to Boyer and Goddard as they wallow in their jaded, craven cynicism. But Boyer isn't as black-hearted as we're led to believe: his relationship with de Havilland is essentially corruption being corroded by exposure to innocence – rather than the other way around, which is how things usually go in the movies. The tale does strain credibility at certain key moments – the circumstances behind a final-act car crash are especially hokey – but the scriptwriters give themselves a get-out by framing the bulk of the narrative as what is in effect a "pitch": the movie opens with Boyer's character recounting his story to a film-director played by Leisen himself. It's a nifty, proto-deconstructionist device that allows Boyer's character copious voiceover – and perhaps a touch of poetic license here and there – but never gets in the way of us enjoying what is by any measure a lively, smart, and emotionally satisfying "weepie."

 ¦ USA 1971  ¦ Alan ARKIN  ¦ 106m (timed)  ¦ 5/10 
The years haven't been particularly kind to Little Murders, a modishly nihilistic, shrill satire masquerading as an offbeat black-comedy romance. Zonked out, self-proclaimed "apathist" photographer Elliott Gould dates loudmouthed, hyperactive, relentlessly cheery Marcia Rodd (whatever happened to her?). Despite his inertia, they're soon married – by a disarmingly straight-talking hippie-philosopher  'Minister' (Donald Sutherland, whose hilarious, extended cameo is by far the best thing about the picture). But their happiness is threatened not only by their own hang-ups, but by the fact that New York is tipping into a hyper-violent dystopia where random murders are becomingly alarmingly commonplace.

Little Murders was adapted from Jules Feiffer's hit Broadway play, and there are numerous lengthy, dialogue-heavy scenes – most of them taking place in the over-decorated apartment inhabited by Rodd's oddball, middle-class parents and vaguely subnormal teenage brother. Gould ambles through the chaos with his trademark Mogadon-hip detachment, but even he fails to give the audience very much to latch on to as the film goes through numerous disorienting shifts of tone while retaining a general air of arch, pretentious discomfort. Not without interest as a document of how the looming,  'me-generation' seventies must have looked to the "kids" of the sixties, but director Arkin never really gets a handle on the incendiary material – we're left with a scattershot, jangly, unevenly-paced exercise in disorientation and alienation from which it's far too easy to become (terminally) alienated.

Neil Young

both seen 22nd August 2006 at Filmhouse cinema
Hold Back the Dawn : public show in Mitchell Leisen Retrospective (complimentary press ticket)
Little Murders : public show in 'They Might Be Giants' Retrospective (paid  £2.75 – press discount)
Edinburgh Film Festival 

Edinburgh 06 index page