Most early 1950s Cold War movies emanating from Hollywood are dreary, fear-mongering polemics condemning Soviet-styled Communism unsubtly. Many of these histrionic films are unintentionally hilarious fun seen today. Perhaps because MGM produced Never Let Me Go (1953) through its British studio in Borehamwood, the film's politics don't overwhelm a compelling love story that's also got an extremely suspenseful third act.
Clark Gable stars as a foreign correspondent who falls for a Russian ballerina (Gene Tierney). After they're married the Russians kick him out of the country and force her to stay, leaving Gabe to take matters into his own hands. Directed by Delmer Daves and produced by Clarence Brown, Never Let Me Go also boasts an excellent supporting cast of British actors, notably Kenneth More, Bernard Miles, and Richard Haydn in revelatory "straight" performance.
Never Let Me Go, a Warner Archive released, premiered in May 1953, about the peak of confusion over aspect ratios and screen shapes in Hollywood, but this seems to have been composed for 1.37:1 full frame, which is how it's presented here. A trailer is included as an extra feature.
American reporter Philip Sutherland (Gable) celebrates V-E Day along with the rest of Moscow, and with radio announcer Steve Quillan (Kenneth More) attends a performance of the Bolshoi ballet that evening. There, ballerina Marya Lamarkina (Tierney), with whom Philip has been infatuated with for the past two years, reveals she's been spurning his advances only so that she could learn English before embarking on a serious relationship. Soon after they marry.
Honeymooning in the Baltic, Philip meets Englishman Christopher Wellington (Richard Haydn) and his Russian wife, Marya's friend, Svetlana Mikhailovna (Anna Valentina, Haydn's real-life spouse), who plan to move back to Christopher's native Cornwall. However, Soviet security agents falsely accuse Christopher of spying and he's expelled while pregnant Svetlana's visa out of the country is denied. As tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. rise, Philip bends over backwards trying to secure Marya a visa before he's transferred back to America, but at the airport government agents separate them and then, branded an undesirable, he can't get back into the country.
Philip visits a despondent Christopher in Cornwall (filmed on location) while secretly hatching an outrageous plot to smuggle Marya and Svetlana out of the country aboard a Dutch sailing boat skippered by local man Joe Brooks (Bernard Miles). How could this million-to-one long shot possibly succeed?
What separates Never Let Me Go from other Hollywood Cold War melodramas is that it's fundamentally a love story, about a couple torn apart by ideological differences but determined to be together again, no matter the cost. Indeed, one way to read the film is that it's not so much politics but personal pettiness, primarily of one particular immigration officer with an axe to grind, that separate them.
The King of Hollywood struggled career-wise following World War II, but Never Let Me Go uses the 52-year-old star quite well. He's believable as a foreign correspondent that might fall for a much younger woman, a delicate ballerina. On one hand the script realistically casts Philip as a completely inexperienced sailor who has to be taught the basics by lifelong seaman Joe Brooks, and even then can't manage the perilous journey to the Baltic all by himself. (Mild Spoilers) On the other hand, Clark Gable is one of the very few actors with the kind of screen presence to get away with trying to rescue Marya from a crowded command performance of Swan Lake, with Philip disguised as a Russian officer.
That rescue attempt, oddly similar to Gable's late wife Carole Lombard's last film, To Be or Not To Be (1942), has one particularly good scene, played entirely in Russian without English subtitles. Soviet security men pick Philip up, presenting him to a high-ranking Russian officer. Gradually it becomes clear that Philip has stolen the uniform of a Soviet doctor and that the Russian officer has summoned him for an emergency examination. Philip's reaction to all this is superbly acted by Gable, who does it all in Russian, too.
Tierney is also good but it's the three British supporting players who make the greatest impression, particularly and unexpectedly Richard Haydn, an actor better known for playing nasally, over-emphatically enunciating twits. Here, he's a sad, discouraged man overwhelmed with grief at being separated from his pregnant wife and, later, the infant son he's never met. His is a very English reaction to counter Gable's American one, but it avoids British stereotypes and something of a revelation for those familiar to Haydn only for his light, comical parts.
Video & Audio
Filmed for 1.37:1 full frame and in black-and-white, Never Let Me Go looks great, with particularly strong blacks and a pleasingly sharp image, while the mono sound (no other audio options, no subtitles) is fine. The disc is region-free.
Included is a fairly good trailer complete with text and narration.
Unexpectedly excellent, Never Let Me Go is lushly romantic, an intriguing historical artifact, and offers a climax that's still nail-bitingly suspenseful all these decades later. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.