Saturday, January 9, 2010

Summer Storm (Angelus Pictures/United Artists, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the 1944 movie Summer Storm, produced by Seymour Nebenzal and Rudi Joseph and directed by Douglas Sirk, née Detlef Sierck, and though it was made in the U.S. it has the feel of a European movie, not only because so many of the people involved (including the producers, the director and the cinematographer, Eugen Schuftan — who wasn’t allowed in the cinematographers’ union at the time so he got a “technical consultant” credit while Archie Stout was given the director of photography credit) were refugees from Nazi Germany, but the story was European — Anton Chekhov’s “The Shooting Party” — and the overall feel was very much that of a European movie rather than an American one, especially an American one of 1944.

Chekhov set his story in Russia in the 1840’s but Sirk and his writer, Rowland Leigh (the co-writing credit to “Michael O’Hara” is not the actor of that name, but a pseudonym for director Sirk), decided to move it up to the 1910’s so they could have the framing scenes take place after the Russian Revolution and provide the sense of a definitive break between the lifestyle depicted in the main part of the movie (told in a flashback narrated, Citizen Kane-style, through a memoir written by one of the characters) and that in the framing scenes. The story takes place in a small Russian village and the central characters are the local landowner, Count Volsky (Edward Everett Horton — in his interview book with Jon Halliday Sirk boasts of casting Horton wildly against type, but he’s actually playing much the same upper-class twit he was in the Astaire-Rogers movie The Gay Divorcée, albeit in a much more “serious” context), and the local “examining magistrate,” Fedor Petroff (played by genuinely half-Russian George Sanders, who recalled pre-Revolutionary Russia from his early childhood and served as a sort of uncredited historical advisor to Sirk), who though supposedly a member of the Russian criminal-justice system wears a military-style uniform throughout.

Fedor is engaged to Nadina (Anna Lee), the daughter of a publisher, but he gets obsessed with Olga (Linda Darnell — teamed with Sanders a year before their more famous film together, Hangover Square), daughter of one of the peasants on Volsky’s estate. Olga gets married to Volsky’s overseer, Urbenin (Hugo Haas), but that doesn’t stop either Fedor from having an affair with her (Nadina breaks their engagement when she spots Fedor kissing Olga — her first glimpse of them is in a mirror, a typical shot for Sirk — and swearing eternal love for her) or Volsky himself cruising her and lavishing gifts on her with amorous intentions — thereby pissing off Volsky’s maid, Clara (Lori Lahner), who herself had been after the Count (who’s depicted as a widower whose descent into debt — in the post-Revolutionary framing scene he ruefully recounts that the Bolsheviks seized his estate not from him but from his creditors — was kick-started into high gear by his wife’s death) for what she could get out of it.

The titular (at least in Chekhov’s original, and in the 1985 remake — which, curiously, kept Sirk’s updating of the story to the 1910’s but moved the setting from Russia to England) shooting party is called by Volsky and takes place on his estate, and during it Olga is found near death. She’s been stabbed — by Fedor, it turns out, though it seems that every time one of the characters (including Olga herself when she’s questioned on her deathbed) is about to speak the truth about his involvement he’s physically present in his official capacity, and therefore he’s able to intimidate them into silence about his role and put the fall on Urbenin, who’s tried, found guilty and sent to Siberia for life. Fedor comes close to confessing at the trial — he stands up to admit that he, not Urbenin, killed Olga, and a woman sitting behind him in the courtroom tells him to sit down and his split-second attack of conscience passes and he not only sits down but shuts up — and it turns out his memoir is also a confession. Volsky gives it to Nadina, who after the Revolution is running her father’s old publishing house — and she puts it in an envelope and addresses it to the public prosecutor but is psychologically unable to bring herself actually to mall it — and Volsky himself mails it, then thinks better of it, mugs the postman and steals the bag of outgoing mail, is cornered by police in a bar and ultimately shot in the back by cops who think he’s just another mail thief, not a murderer trying to escape accountability for his crime.

I once tried to watch this in the early 1970’s on one of the early-morning movie channels and got bored with it — my tastes weren’t sophisticated enough to appreciate it yet — and so when I saw it was available on DVD I rushed to get it and give myself another shot at it, especially since I’ve seen and liked most of Sirk’s independent productions from the 1940’s (Hitler’s Madman, A Scandal in Paris and Lured). Seen today Summer Storm is a great movie, brilliantly cast — playing much the same sort of role he’d have as Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray the following year, Sanders is superb; and Horton’s comic-ditz persona proves unexpectedly successful in this context (“With guys like [Fedor] and the Count going round there had to be a revolution,” Sirk told Halliday), while Darnell is good in a part that requires little more of her than to stand, recline and look luminous — and ravishingly photographed by Schuftan in a rich visual style full of dappled greys and subtle gradations of tone that, like many other Hollywood movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s, make one wonder why the hell anybody thought the movies needed color.

The only problem with it is it’s depressing — Charles suggested it was a forerunner of Ingmar Bergman’s films in its resolute avoidance of any of the positive parts of the human condition, and though it didn’t seem especially Bergmanesque to me (this is Russia, after all, not Sweden!) it did offer a rich tapestry of humanity’s more ignoble motivations while offering little or nothing to exalt the human spirit. But then it was the film a Leftie like Sirk wanted to make in 1944 (when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were still wartime allies, remember, and therefore one could still get away with portraying the Bolshevik Revolution as overall a good thing for Russia): richly detailed, respectful of its source in classic literature and a film which he probably could have made only for an independent production company run by his fellow Germans (Sirk said he’d originally wanted to do the story at Ufa before he fled Germany in 1937 and he’d had in mind the actor Willy Birgel, whom he said was very much a similar “type” to Sanders) — I can imagine the suits at a major studio asking him, “Can’t you please give it a happy ending?”