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.
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
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
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,
Video: Very good
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 17, 2004
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.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson