Dodsworth ★★★★

Wasn’t expecting this to be an such an unsparing depiction of a long-term relationship finally cracking under its pre-existing fissures, all without letting anyone off the hook— at least for a remarkably long time. Dodsworth at first appears to be a light romantic drama, especially with how quickly (and simultaneously) the married couple seem to find their true matches on their ill-fated cruise. I was prepared for a story of both characters either finding new love or coming to realize how much they appreciate each other, but it’s a long road after those early scenes; what emerges is a bracingly frank and complex marital dynamic, the couple again and again displaying both their willful blind spots as well as their ability to nonchalantly wound each other. (The way Fran’s “flirtations” are treated so casually is especially refreshing for a film at just the beginning of the Code era.) Most importantly, the tables start to turn with Sam’s tantrums back at home over things not being catered to him like he’s used to, leading into his borderline-cruel confrontations with Fran as he returns to Europe.

That depth of observation keeps Sam from being merely a starry-eyed pushover, as well as Fran from being a one-dimensional schemer. It does take some time to understand the origin of the latter’s arrogance and disregard for her husband, but this turns out to be the rare film that explicitly addresses the age gap between partners, and how that clearly gave Sam the advantage at the beginning of their marriage. Huston and Chatterton are terrific at portraying every dime turn in their feelings whether together or apart, while the always terrific Mary Astor makes her character more than a simple ideal (her delivery of a simple, empathetic “don’t” to Fran on her way out of a dinner party is piercing). And William Wyler’s direction is as attentive as ever to every emotional beat: see the chaotic close-ups of Fran as the ship’s horn blares over her yelling “he’s gone ashore!,” or the pan away from her making an important phone call to the snowy landscape through a window.

That said, my main reservation is how punitive the final scenes end up feeling towards Fran, which stands out all the more after how carefully the film had humanized her while revealing Sam’s own culpability. Early on, her dressing down from the captain she flirts with on the ship seems par for the course; so long as she remains multi-faceted, her credible displays of opportunism are fair game. But combined with her ultimately being rejected by her new fiancé for being too old herself, plus the way she’s restored to something close to villain status once reunited with Sam— only to be climactically “escaped”— things end up feeling lopsided. Until then, though, this is one of the most unexpectedly knotty relationship dramas of the era, and I felt every sting of hope and disappointment between all three characters. It's becoming clear that Wyler isn't just underrated, but one of the very best.

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