Occupational Hazards

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Frank Borzage’s TILL WE MEET AGAIN is one of his many good ones — it’s a bit undercast, though, with Ray Milland compelled to suppress his naughtiness and Barbara Britton as a novice nun showing no hint of any naughtiness at all (but when you see her in I SHOT JESSE JAMES you see she had considerable reserves of that desirable quality).

Milland plays an American airman (with very occasional nods to a vaguely stateside accent) shot down, rescued by the resistance, and entrusted with secret intelligence gathered by the underground. After a last-minute disruption in their plans, Britton finds herself entrusted with escorting Milland to safety. The movie could have been a forerunner of HEAVEN KNOWS, MR ALLISON, except that somebody obviously felt that any hint of desire between (married) man and (married to Christ) nun would be unacceptable. The most the movie can admit to is that Milland’s reminiscences about his home life open Britton’s eyes to an understanding of male-female relations that had been denied to her. Under the surface, of course, Borzage hints at simmering romantic longing, never stated, and that gives the film its edge.

Scripted by Lenore Coffee, the movie generates just enough suspense in its cross-country situations, and just enough unresolved sexual tension, to maintain interest, but the real attraction is the wondrously unreal studio landscapes and the lighting and camera movies Borzage presides over with ace DoP Theodor Sparkuhl (AKA “Mr. Sparkle”).

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It’s wartime propaganda, of course — Konstantin Shayne is a witty Nazi villain, and Walter Slezak plays a craven French mayor acting as his accomplice, who must of course reveal a scrap of decency lurking somewhere about his corpulent form. Like most Borzage, it’s also informed by religious feeling, but this side of it isn’t propagandistic — rather, it’s felt by the filmmaker and expressed honestly. Sexuality was always a part of Borzage’s religious feelings, and he allows himself the tiniest hint that perhaps Britton’s character would have liked to experience this, and would have actually grown closer to God by doing so — and that she has become more human and divine just from recognizing this. A key scene occurs when she nurses a delirious, injured Milland, who mistakes her for his wife. The scene fades to black discretely, the editor’s favourite mode of plausible deniability — we’re not told where she passes the night. But we could look at CHINA DOLL, a middling late Borzage which reprises many of his favourite tropes, and gain a more distinct idea of what MIGHT have happened…

Also –

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Britton is looking for Milland.

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A puff of cigarette smoke seems to betray his position.

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But — ack! — it’s not him.

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3 Responses to “Occupational Hazards”

  1. This film isn’t one of Borzage’s really great works because as you say its undercast. I feel if it were made in the Pre-Code era, it would have allowed for more freedom in telling the story. But it’s still interesting and the end is bleak. Though not as much as THE MORTAL STORM. Ideally, Margaret Sullavan and Jimmy Stewart ought to have been the couple, it would certainly take a lot from Stewart’s own unrequited crush on her.

  2. Or Sullavan and Henry Fonda, who had history. The deeper problem as you say is probably censorship: it’s a movie that does not dare to ask “Aw why’d ya have to be a NUN?”

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