Phone Call From a Stranger
Directed by Jean Negulesco
Bette Davis looms large in all of the promotional material for this film but she is only in it for about ten minutes. You find yourself waiting for her to show up. You find yourself forgetting she’s even in it for a while, and then remembering, “Wait a second … when the hell is Bette Davis gonna appear??” When she does, it has a pretty huge impact, especially because what we have been led to believe she is like. If you have any fear of flying, then Phone Call From a Stranger may push all your Panic Buttons. It’s the story of a group of people on a flight to Los Angeles, which takes off from a little airport, on a stormy night. David Trask (Gary Merrill) is leaving his wife, who has had an affair. He calls her from the airport, and she begs him to forgive her, and he says he just can’t right now. So everyone’s got secrets, you see. It’s the main point of the film: we judge people on first appearance, but everyone’s got a back story, there are always multiple sides. The flight is bumpy, and they have to make an emergency landing at a small airport to wait out the storm. During this stopover, four of the passengers bond. It’s Gary Merrill, the wonderful Keenan Wynn as a loud-talking goofball salesman, Shelley Winters as Binkie Gay, a stripper on her way back to Los Angeles after a failed attempt at doing legit theatre in New York, and Michael Rennie as Dr. Robert Fortness, a guy who seemingly has it all but there is darkness in his past. He is on the run from his own darkness! Confidences are exchanged. The four play cards. They exchange addresses. They should all get together in Los Angeles some time. There are flashbacks for all four characters, which kind of wears out its welcome after a while. That’s a hell of lot of flashbacks. And then there’s a plane crash, which is flat-out terrifying, very effective. To say more would be to provide spoilers. The acting is wonderful, and Beatrice Straight (who won an Oscar for her role in Network) is incredible in her mainly-flashback role as the Doctor’s long-suffering wife. She gives a heartbreaking performance. Shelley Winters is the quintessential wisecracking showgal, who loves her husband, and has a bad relationship with her mother-in-law, a sort of second-rate Gypsy Rose Lee, played by Evelyn Varden (who was in Night of the Hunter, but I mainly remember her as the duped neighbor in The Bad Seed). All of this is a tiny bit dumb, and it’s like four different movies are struggling for supremacy, but I like the underlying theme: that people are more than your first impression of them, that there is always more depth and nuance to every story. Keenan Wynn’s salesman, who makes loud ribald jokes, and wears fake false teeth to make other people laugh, and is treated like a slightly annoying buffoon, suddenly emerges as a nearly heroic figure by the end of the film. I’ve always loved Keenan Wynn. Screenplay by the great Nunnally Johnson.
The Old Maid
Directed by Edmund Goulding
A Bette Davis double feature. This is one of her best roles, although in a career like that it is difficult to choose. It is a tour de force. She has to go from hopeful young teenage girl to dowdy old maid in the course of less than two hours. Her later appearance as the maiden aunt, with the upswept grey bun, and the tired cold eyes, is absolutely heartbreaking, because we understand what she has given up, what she has sacrificed. It is a shocking transformation, and 100% believable. Miriam Hopkins is also excellent. The film is really a two-hander. There are other roles, mostly played by men, and Donald Crisp is wonderful as the family doctor. But it’s really about the two women, and their relationship over their lives. Bette Davis had a way of making her co-stars look boring. She couldn’t help it. She was working on another plane. But Hopkins is fantastic. This is the Bette Davis Show, though. Sit back, and watch, and wonder at her gift. The final moment always makes my heart swell, and tears run down my face. It’s a perfect ending. Tragic, in its way, but cathartic. There is a release of the sadness we have been feeling, there is a momentary respite. Davis is a marvel: her control of her body, her shape, her voice, her intonation, her gesture … and yet none of it seems mannered, or “put on”. This is how this woman talks, this is how she moves, this is what she is like when she is alone. Davis’ work is so specific, so well thought out, and yet she manages to do all of that work without showing how hard she is working. Her work is still revelatory.