He ain't heavy...he's my fugitive boozehound brother. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released The Bottom of the Bottle, the 1956 meller from Fox, based on Georges Simenon's novel, La Fond de la bouteille, directed by Henry Hathaway, and starring Van Johnson, Joseph Cotton, Ruth Roman, Jack Carson, Margaret Hayes, Bruce Bennett, Brad Dexter, Peggy Knudsen, Jim Davis, Margaret Lindsay, Nancy Gates, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, and Harry Morgan. A muscley cross between the Bible's "Cain and Abel" and The Lost Weekend, with a wee bit of Peyton Place social commentary thrown in for good measure, The Bottom of the Bottle comes over as a lush (hee hee!), ripe...but ultimately fuzzy melodrama, anchored by some snappy art direction and cinematography, and Johnson's and Cotton's effective turns. Certainly anyone aware of Fox's crazily erratic Cinema Archives releases will wonder first if this CinemaScope production is properly framed: it is. However...it's not anamorphically enhanced, just letterboxed--a pity, too, because this beautifully-designed movie could have really popped in the right presentation. An original trailer is included.
Big wheel attorney and rancher Pat "PM" Martin (Joseph Cotten) is hightailing it back over the Mexican border to the American side of Nogales, Arizona, after spending his usual Saturday night with a bought senorita. A flood is coming to the Santa Cruz River, and PM has to be on the American side, no matter what, lest people talk more than they already do. Safe in his spacious ranch-style mansion on 30K+ acres, the uptight, emotionless PM is rattled when out of the dark car garage emerges his brother, Donald (Van Johnson), an escaped fugitive. Donald, a cold turkey alcoholic, was doing a dime in Joliet for manslaughter, with five years to go on his sentence--a case of self-defense he could have probably beaten if his image-conscious brother had bothered to help him. Now on the run, and on the wrong side of the Santa Cruz, he needs help from his brother: Donald's family, including Mildred (Nancy Gates) and his three children, are waiting for him in Mexico, and they're completely without funds (cramped together in a squalid, filthy Mexican hotel, little Frank is shining shoes in the streets while Mildred waitresses in exchange for sandwiches). PM, though, won't help; he's not going to lose everything he's built only to go down for aiding and abetting the brother he's ashamed of in the first place. PM's wife, however, the sad, lonely, and, er...frustrated Nora (Ruth Roman), doesn't think all that much of the phony, empty world PM has created, which consists mostly of drunken parties with their wealthy rancher friends...and long, long nights alone. In bed.
Satisfying in a superficially melodramatic manner, The Bottom of the Bottle is enjoyable...just not terribly deep. I haven't read Georges Simenon's novel upon which the movie is based--a novel loosely inspired, apparently, by Simenon's real-life experience waiting in Nogales, Arizona for his lover to get the proper papers to come to America--so I can't say how much of what's here on the screen comes from him, or from Sydney Boehm (The Big Heat, When Worlds Collide, Rogue Cop), Bottle's screenwriter (thanks to a friend, though, I have recently discovered Penguin Classics' exhaustive reprinting of Simenon's work--particularly the engrossing Inspector Maigret mysteries--and I can't praise his spare, evocative novels highly enough). Authorship aside, it's a crackerjack story, with several lines of dramatic tension admirably set up to pull against the viewer. Will the wayward brother escape into Mexico to be with his family? Will his presence derail his upright brother's position in the community, particularly when he asked for help that is illegal? Will the fugitive fall off the wagon due to the pressure of the situation? Will the "good" brother's sham of a marriage finally fall apart when the depths of his emotional distance is finally revealed to his wife, when he refuses to help his troubled brother and his destitute wife and children? Will the pillar of the questionable "ranch" community face up to the irony that his escaped con brother is actually a better family man, than he is? Will brother forgive brother? And all the while, the Santa Cruz River rages, swollen and out of control, trapping everyone in circumstances they don't want, as everyone waits for it to subside.
Some funny, sardonic lines pepper the screenplay, as well. As Cotton wrings his hands in fear, insisting that brother Johnson call him "PM"--not only to maintain Johnson's cover but also to subtly remind Johnson that's he's a big wheel now--Johnson sneers, "Any man who likes to be called by his initials has to be scared to death of scandal." When Cotton lies to man-hungry, sensation-seeking Margaret Hayes, one of his high-partying, wealthy neighbors, that Johnson is a mental patient to be treaded around lightly, she pants, "Nonsense! He's too...physical for that!" And when an increasingly paranoid, frantic Johnson becomes drunk at Hayes' party, insulting her, puffed-up weakling husband Jack Carson (whom Hayes has sexually rejected) ineffectually offers, "You can't talk to my wife like that," to which Johnson laughs and replies, "Oh yes I can! You can't...but I can!" (the movie's best joke--Carson's doorbell chimes How Dry I Am--is unfortunately lessened by overuse). And The Bottom of the Bottle, simply from a visual standpoint, is a pleasure to look at: Lyle R. Wheeler's and Maurice Ransford's beautifully stylized production design contrasts hard, clean CinemaScope vistas of the Arizona desert with dark, vast, luxurious interior sets, while legendary cinematographer Lee Garmes (Morocco, Gone With the Wind, Duel in the Sun, Nightmare Alley) achieves an eye-popping, cartoony color palette, with lighting effects that, in the hands, perhaps, of a more sensitive director (Minnelli?), could have more forcefully commented on the drama.
As well, the performers--particularly the two male leads--do the best they can with the material they're given. Cotton, working again with Hathaway after their successful Niagara collaboration, gives another psychologically damaged, disagreeable lead performance that's far more informative than anything that's discernible in the script (he's better at playing the disgusted "gutless success," though, than the forgiving brother at the end--frankly, he still looks pissed-off at Johnson). Van Johnson is even better, in one of his best dramatic turns. A criminally underutilized performer, he's great here: physically tough ("I had a key," he smartasses when asked how he got out of jail as he shows Cotton his gun), but also sensitive (his terrific scene on the phone with his beleaguered wife--maybe the best acting I've seen him do), and weak (his paranoid, alcoholic freak-out at the party), and heroic (his resignation at going back to help his drowning brother). It had to kill Johnson at this downward point in his career (he had long been out of the Top Ten moneymakers by 1956) that he was routinely dismissed early on for his sunny musicals and light comedies, only to get politely respectful notices from critics for works like The Caine Mutiny and The Bottom of the Bottle--notices that continually expressed how surprised the critics were at his considerable dramatic skills (how many times were they going to write that before it wasn't a surprise anymore?).
Unfortunately, The Bottom of the Bottle can't seem to make up its mind whether it's a satirical soaper or an alcoholic actioner, with both subgenres getting shorted upon closer inspection. Points are made in the screenplay...but they're pretty obvious and fairly facile (when Roman actually uses the words, "brother's keeper" towards the end, you can pretty much exclude "artful" from your review). Not nearly enough is done with the wealthy ranch society satire (we have to fill in the blanks on our own as to what Hathaway is really trying to say about them), while the sporadic action (Johnson's drunken escape to Mexico) isn't enough to make us forget the vague plot points and fuzzy character motivations. I'm still not exactly clear on why Roman isn't sleeping with Cotton...or why he's not sleeping with her but is with Mexican whores, and that's a critical haziness that undermines fully one half of the narrative. As well, I don't buy the instant transition of Johnson the tough, resourceful escaped con into the crying, whining drunk who's stumbling around the countryside the minute he can't get to his wife and family (he's made it this far...it's only two more days...). The title of the movie seems to imply we're going to get an examination of an alcoholic similar to something like The Lost Weekend, but The Bottom of the Bottle doesn't really examine Johnson's weakness at all (that's right: moral weakness, not a "disease"). It's used merely as a plot point to make everyone nervous about him, and to give him a reason to go out into the night with everyone chasing after him. And without any insight into his weakness of character...we can't sympathize with his staggering about the cactus, weeping and carrying on, before he's nonsensically robbing stores and stealing guns.
And that central fogginess of Johnson's actions rob the few action scenes of any impact. It's cool to see a stunt man almost get squished by an on-coming train as "Johnson" slithers off the track in the nick of time (a pretty hairy stunt upon close inspection), but it doesn't mean anything because we don't really like Johnson anymore at this point. We were with him at the start, but we don't sympathize with his plight now (a big mistake the screenplay makes here is already telling us his family received financial aid from Cotton: it deflates a lot of suspense, and further robs Johnson's actions of any import). SPOILERS ALERT! By the time everyone gets on a horse looking for Johnson (even Roman's out there, for some reason), Hathaway ditches the real locations and goes for a pathetic studio mock-up (the river's "current" has to be 50 grips paddling the still waters), with stuntmen obviously doubling for Cotton and Johnson--a piss-poor action finale that's as fake as it is distressingly predictable.
Yes, it's better to see the whole letterboxed 2.35:1 CinemaScope image here...but seeing as how snazzy this must have looked originally, it's a shame that Fox's Cinema Archives couldn't have given this a cleaned-up, anamorphic release. As a result, the letterboxed image is slightly fuzzy at times, with regrettably muted color. Grain is apparent, too. A shame.
I could be wrong...but it sounds like a two track stereo mix here. Re-recording level is hefty, and hiss is noticeable but not egregious. No subtitles or closed-captions.
An original trailer is included (a largely incoherent one that probably didn't help The Bottom of the Bottle at the box office).
Superficially entertaining meller. Lots of window dressing is right on target here in this potentially interesting take on Cain and Abel Move to Peyton Place, including an eye-popping, stylized production design, expressive cinematography, and terrific performances by Joesph Cotton and particularly Van Johnson. However...a split focus between social satire and action-filled drama robs both tangents of impact, while the script plays it blurry with why everyone is doing what they're doing. Still, enough goes right here that I'm recommending The Bottom of the Bottle.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.