Saturday, May 08, 2010

Tonight's Movie: The Macomber Affair (1947)

THE MACOMBER AFFAIR is a compelling, atmospheric character study based on the Hemingway story "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber."

Francis and Margaret ("Margot") Macomber (Robert Preston and Joan Bennett) hire Robert Wilson (Gregory Peck) to take them on an African safari hunting for big game. The Macombers are increasingly revealed to be a bickering couple, to Robert's discomfort. Things grow even more uncomfortable among the threesome when Robert finds himself attracted to Margot, and vice versa.

The interactions between the three actors bristle with energy; Peck, Preston, and Bennett are all excellent. Preston and Bennett aren't shy about playing unattractive characters. Much of the film involves people being nasty to one another, but it's fascinating watching the actors and trying to understand what's going on behind the dialogue. Bit by bit the layers are peeled back to reveal the Macombers' true characters. Wilson, on the other hand, initially seems more straightforward and "by the book" but turns into something of an enigma. He illegally stalks game from a Jeep, and nice guys, after all, don't carry on with another man's wife in the next tent over...if that's what happened.

It's almost as though there's two stories, what's heard on the surface via the dialogue, and then what's really happening. Even the title is layered with multiple meanings. A great deal is conveyed simply through actions, such as Margot looking toward Wilson's tent as she smells her cologne, then hastily putting it away as she hears her husband approach the tent. The moment when Margot deliberately kisses Wilson in front of her husband is certainly eye-popping!

Toward the end of the film, Margot's description of her marriage turns the meaning of a few moments earlier in the movie inside out. The viewer is left wondering about some things, including the central question asked from the start of the film: Was Francis Macomber's death an accident? The film will bear repeat viewing to further analyze the puzzle. For that matter, I haven't read Hemingway in years; perhaps I'll get a copy of the story.

I really liked the structure of the film. The viewer's attention is immediately grabbed by the sight of airplane lights cutting through the dark as it lands. On board the plane, Mrs. Macomber is distraught over her husband's death while on safari. The audience is immediately pulled into the action, being introduced to the characters as their emotions are running high. The inspector (Reginald Denny) asks Robert Wilson for a report on how Mr. Macomber died, and as Wilson prepares it, the story is then recounted in flashback.

At times the movie vividly captures the feeling of being outdoors, particularly when the actors are seen in their Jeep following various animals. The play of light over the actors' faces in this black and white film is quite striking.  (The movie was filmed by Karl Struss, with three additional photographers who shot footage in Africa.) There's some wonderful wildlife scenes, particularly of a herd of running giraffes. I didn't care for the actual animal hunting angle -- shooting wild animals for sport seems rather outdated viewed from 2010 -- but I just looked away when they were firing. The hunting scenes are critical to the story so they can't be skipped entirely.

This was the last film appearance by Jean Gillie, whose best-known film might be a somewhat infamous Monogram film noir called DECOY (1946). She passed away in 1949.

The movie was directed by Zoltan Korda. It has a musical score by Miklos Rozsa. The movie runs 89 minutes.

The film merits its 3-1/2 star rating from both Leonard Maltin and Steven Scheuer. Unfortunately, this movie is currently fairly difficult to locate. Hopefully that will change in the future! I'd love to see it released by Criterion or another DVD company. My thanks to Moira for making it possible for me to view it.

Update: More thoughts on this film at Hollywood Dreamland.


Blogger Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

The last time I saw this movie, it was on TBS -- so that should give you an idea of how long it's been (they showed movies in the mornings and afternoons back then). I'd love to get a gander at it again.

6:21 AM  
Blogger C.K. Dexter Haven said...

What a coincidence! I mentioned The Macomber Affair back on April 25, to wonderfully stony silence. ;) Considering that cast, I would've expected some kind of interest. I'm still on the lookout for a DVD release, as well.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for your's a mystery to me why this one isn't more widely available. Rights issues?

C.K., thanks so much for the link! I'll add it to my post. :)

Best wishes,

12:08 PM  

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