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DVD SAVANT

Carrie


Carrie
Paramount Home Entertainment
1952 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 118 121 min. / Street Date January 18, 2004 / 14.99
Starring Laurence Olivier, Jennifer Jones, Miriam Hopkins, Eddie Albert
Cinematography Victor Milner
Art Direction Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira
Film Editor Robert Swink
Original Music David Raksin
Written by Ruth & Augustus Goetz from the novel Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
Produced and Directed by William Wyler

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Paramount has come up with a real gem in its latest trip to the vault, a powerful but overlooked William Wyler drama from 1952. The title Carrie has since become associated with a Brian De Palma horror film, so this DVD release can aid in the rediscovery.

The post-war Hollywood shift toward social anxieties and moral darkness was felt at Paramount in several big films by name directors. George Stevens' A Place in the Sun was a look at the souring of the American dream. Despite a relentlessly pessimistic plotline, its success was insured by the romantic pairing of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (The Big Carnival) was a grating and heartless look at the venality of modern life. With no romance to engage the moviegoing public it became a resounding flop, although its reputation now overshadows most of the prestigious successes of its time.

William Wyler took another Theodore Dreiser book about the utter destruction of ordinary people and fashioned this compelling drama. A sharp pessimism is softened by the film's two attractive stars, but this underappreciated classic reportedly didn't find its audience. It features Laurence Olivier in what might be his best American screen role.

Synopsis:

1890 (?). Small-town girl Carrie Meeber (Jennifer Jones) no sooner arrives in Chicago than she becomes the mistress of Charles Drouet, a cheerfully dishonest salesman (Eddie Albert). But she also catches the eye of an unhappy restaurant manager, George Hurstwood (Laurence Olivier). He falls so deeply in love with her that he recklessly throws away his security and good name. Practically held prisoner by his disapproving, controlling wife Julie (Miriam Hopkins), George tells Carrie more lies than Drouet had, simply because for fear of losing her. Under pressure from all sides, he steals his employer's money and runs away to New York. But the visibility of his crime makes him unemployable and their relationship cannot sustain his dishonesty and loss of self-respect. Never given the whole truth, Carrie cannot fully understand George's behavior or the depth of his commitment to her.

Audiences going to the movies to forget their problems can be forgiven for not championing Carrie, which is not a picture to be recommended to anyone unhappy in their work or feeling guilty about their relationships. It's an interesting turn on the "woman corrupts good man" subgenre of romantic literature. The old standard was the Lulu - type story that held females responsible for luring males away from the straight and narrow simply by being desirable, as seen in movies with Louise Brooks (Pandora's Box) and Marlene Dietrich (The Blue Angel). Dreiser was more interested in the social context that seemed to guarantee bad endings for inoffensive characters; A Place in the Sun and Carrie make our skin crawl because, given the same choices, we can easily see ourselves taking the same path.

Carrie is unusually powerful because George Hurstwood is not the victim of a trick plot, even though outside influences seem to dictate his actions. He's drawn to Carrie in the full knowledge of the risk to his well-being. The beauty of Hurstwood is that he makes us understand exactly why a good man would purposely ruin himself. As with Professor Unrath in The Blue Angel Hurstwood is intoxicated by the charms of a desirable woman. Yet Carrie is neither a femme fatale nor amoral. For men like Eddie Albert's traveling salesman Charlie, young innocents like Carrie are a resource to be coddled and deceived; Charlie is an honest cad. Laurence Olivier's emotional George Hurstwood is a much more dangerous man. He deceives Carrie, his horrible wife and his employer in the full knowledge that the only possible outcome is disaster. Even as we forgive his emotional desperation we cringe at the thought that this intelligent fellow can be so destructive.

Some reviewers and fans of Dreiser in particular fault Carrie for romanticizing the source novel, in which Hurstwood and Carrie aren't as sympathetic. The movie gives the bleak ending a slight sentimental uplift. William Wyler does have the problem that the production code wouldn't let him tell the entire story. Carrie is an innocent waiting to be seduced and unaware of the spell her beauty holds over men. The film glosses over her key transformation - from joblessness to kept woman - in a single dissolve. In 1952 no Hollywood film could be specific about a sexual initiation and the lack of detail makes Carrie seem more clueless than she should be. Even if she didn't know the ropes, a few nights with Charles Drouet should have opened her eyes to the way of the world. Carrie is neither drowning in shame nor floundering in denial and Jennifer Jones' performance does nothing with this part of the film. Jones doesn't play her as stupid as perhaps she needs to be.

The film is about Hurstwood's downfall, which seems to have started long before the film began, with his loveless marriage to a woman who denigrates his work. Unless we're to take Julie Hurstwood as evil incarnate, she might well have had good reasons to want to put the family property in her name. Both she and Hurstwood's boss conspire to control him financially, but how do we know that their actions didn't have an earlier cause? Did Hurstwood show earlier signs of instability or unfaithfulness? Julie may have had a good reason for taking control of her husband's finances, at least from her point of view.

The movie tells a different story, one eager to find Hurstwood as his wife's victim. As it is, we see a cultured and polished man who from the beginning makes lousy decisions while avoiding responsibility for his actions. A key moment is when he 'accidentally' takes his boss'es money from the safe. Sure, what happens is possible, but the way the cash gets locked out sounds like a story one might tell to cover up one's culpability. Hurstwood is so dishonest with himself and Carrie, it's as if his duplicity is part of the fabric of the story.  1

The second half of the story is less problematic. Carrie remains (almost implausibly) ignorant of the exact nature of George's downfall and blames herself for his bad luck. Hurstwood's descent into the lower depths is taken in steps, as we see his dignity slowly chisled away. His high-class manners make him unsuitable for the cheap jobs he can get and his refinement is resented by men who never had his advantages. The film ends with melodramatic gestures of sacrifice by both Carrie and Hurstwood; these may seem wrong to the critics but they're essential to make Carrie watchable.

Considering that this is a 1952 and that the main roles are played by glamorous movie stars, Carrie is pretty darn uncompromising. While not the boxoffice bellyflop of Ace in the Hole it serves as a good example of why Hollywood studios so strongly avoided realistic and harsh themes in favor of easily-marketed escapist fantasies. Both Wyler and Wilder moved quickly to much more palatable entertainments - Roman Holiday and Stalag 17.

Both Olivier and Jones do fine work here, with Jones coming off looking like an ordinary movie star next to Olivier's overwhelmingly sensitive peformance. Hurstwood has a wistfulness about him, a gentility that eventually reveals itself as an avoidance of reality. As the character digs his own grave with lies, Olivier makes us feel every painful step. It's as if he's experiencing it as it happens.

Eddie Albert is so casually venal that he must have made a prior deal with Wyler to come back immediately as a more sympathetic character in Roman Holiday. Excellent support is offered by the likes of Ray Teal as a snide detective and Barry Kelly in a brief bit as a New York beanery proprietor - awful men who seem to enjoy kicking Hurstwood when he's down.

Interestingly, Carrie's briefly-seen parents are played by Dorothy Adams and Walter Baldwin, the same couple that played small town parents in Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives. Many 1952 viewers were familiar with the 1946 classic; I wonder if Wyler thought that the "associative shorthand" of the casting might touch the right anxious tone with just one brief glance. The parents look so miserable as they send Carrie off, we wonder if there's more pertinent history we're not being told.


Paramount's DVD of Carrie looks good on this DVD even though there is little sign of the kind of restoration that went into Roman Holiday or even A Place in the Sun. The picture is basically clean but has some dings and marks, even a long scratch in one scene. The sound is fine, and provides a nice showcase for David Raksin's expressive score.

The big news is the restoration of a cut scene, an impressive view of Hurstwood awakening sick and starving in a New York flophouse. It's a needed step toward the film's dark conclusion and without it the picture must have seemed disjointed and rushed. An awkward title added before the feature does an inadequate job of explaining why the scene was cut, saying that it was never shown in America intact, and that 'the political climate of 1951' was responsible.

It's not usual for studios to officially acknowledge the 'political climate' of the early 1950s in any context. It has been well established that conservative activists were instrumental in censoring film content deemed likely to present the U.S. in an unfavorable light. Clare Booth Luce is on record as interfering with the career of at least one director forced to flee to Europe, and her lobbying tried to do things like keep The Blackboard Jungle from being shown abroad so that its negative picture of American life couldn't be used as Communist propaganda.

But the title card implies that Carrie was shown full-length overseas, indicating that it was censored only for domestic audiences ... why? I've since learned that there was an actual suicide scene filmed that apparently took place back in the flophouse. As it is, George's playing with the gas tap on Carrie's tea-warmer in the final film is hint enough.

There are no other extras on the disc. Many viewers are going to immediately want a better explanation for the deleted scene.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Carrie rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 17, 2004


Footnote:

1. A similar story in a very confused film noir vein is a fascinating Warner film called Nora Prentiss. Nightclub performer Ann Sheridan becomes romantically involved with a married doctor and some underworld types. The doctor fakes his own death (I think) and ends up a hunted man. They flee to another city and hides out while she works at night. He becomes bitter and jealous of the other men she meets. As in Carrie, the bleak ending reminds us of The Blue Angel crossed with I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang. The characters barely make sense except as types and Kent Smith's performance as the doctor has little depth compared to Olivier's masterful work.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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