Remember the Night

(Mitchell Leisen, USA, 1940)


It was love that made you understand.

– Beulah Bondi in Remember the Night


At the 1990 Melbourne Film Festival, there was a (very) belated homage to one of Hollywood’s greatest and most significant talents, the writer-director-producer Preston Sturges. (Ken Bowser’s 1990 doco, Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer, also presented at this event, was no kind of worthy or adequate testament.) Sturges’ career was certainly unusual in its shape and course; he really sparkled for only four or five years, during which everything clicked for him, between The Great McGinty in 1940 and Hail the Conquering Hero in 1944. Other work of interest preceded and followed, but that is truly the Royal Road of his achievement. Nonetheless, what Sturges gave cinema – and the world – in those prime years is sublime, inimitable (many have tried and failed) and inexhaustible.


Many (such as Australian screenwriter-director Bob Ellis) have paid lip-service to Sturges’ greatness, seeing only the surface delights of his films: the star turns (by Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea …); the witty, erudite dialogue; the galaxy of supporting character actors whom the director enlisted as his ever-transposable troupe of travelling players. Still today, his films are boiled down (with the notable exception of Brian Henderson’s brilliant scholarship) to a mere platitude: a cockeyed, mostly satirical view of the American Dream and all its dreamers, great or small.


Yet there is so much more.


Take Remember the Night, directed by the underrated Mitchell Leisen from Sturges’ script. (Sturges did not like Leisen’s treatment of his work, but let’s put that behind-the-scenes squabble aside: at least, it served the good function of prompting Sturges to become a director himself.) The premise is standard Hollywood stuff. Lawyer Jack (MacMurray) reluctantly looks after pretty criminal Lee (Stanwyck) over the Christmas court recess. They travel to their respective parental out-of-town homes and families, slowly falling in love along the way.


But, as always in Sturges, such an adventure of the heart puts everything in question: the characters’ social roles, their moral and ethical values, their sense of who they are and what is now possible for them. By the time Lee and Jack must inevitably confront the harsh reality of their lives back in the city, the emotional tension is unbearably poignant and affecting. Watch it and weep.


The discovery of this film in 1990 marked a powerful, personal epiphany for me, one that I realised I had to subsequently unravel and understand. This epiphany connects to what is virtually the primal scene of my teenage cinephilia, although I had somewhat forgotten or erased this fact over the course of a decade and a half: watching a string of Preston Sturges films on TV that often moved me in ways I couldn’t articulate then, and still barely can comprehend now. The annals of film criticism – including some of the best – doesn’t really get me close to the heart of this mystery. So here are some further notes toward formulating that experience and understanding …


The profondity of Sturges: it’s in the theme of deviation, the drift from one’s identity or role. And how far this drift can go – for Jack in Remember the Night, it’s all the way into criminality, the subversion of his law practice. Sturges is very conscious of this; the plot is literally structured on a road detour, later a detour through Canada … Note, in this light, the classic elided sex scene: “We are at Niagara Falls” – it’s an unofficialised, unsanctioned honeymoon wedding night.


In this version (and vision) of liminality, there is the open, and also very unresolved, question of what these people will do, who they will be, when they are back in their initial, social position: whether as prosecutor and criminal, or man and woman … “This time tomorrow, where will you be?” (The Kinks). And at the end of Remember the Night, the balance is weird and unsettling: he is still deviating, and she is trying to pull, trying to return him to his destiny and vocation – and trying to get him to accept her supposed guilt (which, by that point, he could hardly care less about).


We can try to get the measure of Sturges’ importance through a reflection on Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept (in The Dialogic Imagination) of heteroglossia, the threading and mutual displacement of many genres, film types, clichés. As the great scholar Marie Maclean [died 1994] might have said, if this were literature rather than film: what Sturges offers us is a true heteroglossia of gender discourses, from all the variegated utterances of male law and order, all the way through to trans-generational exchanges between women about undergarments, cultural beauty-types, how one did or did not measure up …


The problem with singular genres is the simple fact (so obvious and “natural”, it’s a surprise to find oneself suddenly pondering it) that they severely restrict what can be brought in, played with, thought about … entertained in the deepest sense. For instance: how many of the great male action heroes – at least in American cinema – ever have mothers? This is why, for example, the work of James Toback matters, because he harps on this point in a needling, idiosyncratic, obsessive way (for, naturally, every hero, no matter how grandiose, has to come from somewhere).


And this is (to continue the thought-detour!) the interest of a Hong Kong action-comedy like Tiger on the Beat 2 (Lau Kar Leung, 1990), where the “human interest” – still displaced, but not rendered without a measure of respect and gravity, not derided out of hand (and out of film) as merely comic – concerns the request of the mother (insistently present through her photo and as a voice down the phone) that the “green”, second hero find a nice home … (cf. also Roger Donaldson’s Cadillac Man [1990]).


There is a recurring theme in Sturges (see The Lady Eve, 1942) about pulling back from deep understanding – or at least the trembling, opening possibility of it – and retreating to surface parlance, babble: “I’m not unnattractive”, says Lee in Remember the Night, so that’s why he kissed me; or: you’re a good-looking guy …


It’s as if Sturges finds the best, picaresque way to  travel though and call up different Hollywood film-types and their possibilities. This gives rise to endless splits of the social-cultural norm beyond any initial, binary division: here men are variously “true”, actors, bad actors … they’re virile, virile yet naive, out-and-out fops, hicks who turn rather proud and tough when mocked too much. And what Sturges allows in is a great deal of the feminine element, female exchanges and culture, as well as a wilting feminisation of the men (Sullivan’s Travels, 1941).


There are so many crossovers in this film (rich to poor), sudden exchanges across barriers (old to young), splits, substitutions, deviations … An entire poetic structure, system or logic of character trajectories that have never been properly brought to light before. There are even unconscious adventures during sleep!


Such is the Bakhtinian richness behind the old commonplace, endlessly said and written about Sturges: that the films are polyglotic, that every player has their own speech, voice, obsession, trajectory, everybody is a world unto themselves … But what are the cultural resonances of his specific shifts, mixes and displacements? Could it be this powerfully feminine resonance that has escaped and silenced most critical commentary on Sturges? (Not to mention Frank Tashlin’s own further riff on Sturges, via Jerry Lewis, in Rock-a-bye Baby [1958]).


That lame doco mentioned above gives Sturges so many supposedly masculine virtues: irony, maverick toughness, vision, invention, incisive satire, cynicism, access to truth – and rests this sum of greatness precisely on the flight from and refusal of his over-cultivated, suffocating mother! And yet the films themselves never stop returning to the figure of the mother. And William Demarest (beloved of Sturges) is always fainting …


The films also never stop returning to the question of culture, which is mixed into another heteroglossia, at so many levels: it isn’t a matter (as Bowser presumes) of high and low cultures in contradictory opposition, clash, conflict or abrasion, but another, constant form of exchange.


Plus, the entire sentimental, intensely romantic, yielding side of Sturges’ cinema is played down by many (most) commentators. It’s not just a matter of “strong women”, in any attractively simple (or phantasmatically threatening) sense. Rather, in Sturges, there is always the seduction or absorption of the characters by a zone of the sentiments, “straight from the heart” emotions, and intimacy. In the penultimate courtroom scene of Remember the Night, there is so much ambivalence, so many confused feelings at play, characters’ actions that are unknowable to each other. Love makes them deviate from their path – and (eventually, hopefully) understand.


As I’ve indicated, Preston Sturges’ films are at the very heart and origin of my own cinephilia. Their ephemeral “convulsions”, their mood shifts, their fleeting, poignant moments of half-life (Veronica Lake in the train car of Sullivan’s Travels), the open sense of ever-present (and ever-menacing) possibility, the evasion or sly erosion of codes of normality … these are the things for me to reckon with. In Sturges (as in Blake Edwards), we encounter a situation (duly thematised) wherein the enormity of the given, the obligation to return to it, to affirm it, rubs right up, endlessly, against the temptation to drift-away and drift-apart …


A “sentimental feminisation” is surely a big, formative part of my own love of cinema (romances, musicals, teen movies, cosmic art-film encounters, etc., etc.). In the deep structure of this cinephilia, there’s a striving, a liberation of love and/or of laughter … the whole surrealist legacy of Peter Ibbetson (1935), and of crazy gag comedy. And there is also a register of knotted-up, adolescent longing for a female phantasm (Angel Face, 1953); as well as the epiphanies of “pure cinema”, the power and mystery of film form, on that palpitating surface of otherness which is the screen itself (Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson, etc: a friend refers to Remember the Night as the most Bressonian film not made by Bresson).


But there is also, I now recall as I “remember the night”, a yielding, a letting-go: not a violent frgamentation or fetishisation so much as a drifting, an absorption, a vignetting of scenes, worlds and sights that is so common to what I once called in my teen years “the Hollywood-text” … a fraying and a decaying at the edge of these vignetted moments, and then the “continuous streaming” (to take a line from Love Streams) of all these fragilities …


That was the encounter – of a pure cinema with such streaming, poignant ephemeralities – I was to eventually experience with the films of John Cassavetes. It all started, at least a decade earlier for me, with Preston Sturges.

© Adrian Martin June/September 1990

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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