My second Dieterle film cannot begin to live up to the majesty of Portrait of Jennie (one of the best films to ever come out of the Hollywood system) but it is nonetheless a striking and special film that sets itself apart from most films of the era. He borrows heavily from German expressionism, and more recently Citizen Kane as the pinnacle of his visual style. However, the closest comparison is no doubt Max Ophuls, who himself deals with exaggerated tales of love, romance and mystery with the same glowing style. His camera, is often in movement, in zooms or tracking but hardly with the same vibrancy as Ophuls. What truly defines his style is the use of depth of field, and the play of focus to express the emotional whims of his characters.
The story is fantastic, a soldier has been writing love letters for a friend, but finds himself falling in love with the woman. He’s injured, and returns home, hardened by war and curious to find the woman he had fallen in love with. He finds that she has married the soldier, but in a horrible tragedy was accused of murdering him one night. The twist is that she has no memory of the event, furthermore, she has no memory of anything before her trial. She calls herself Singleton, and while she has seemingly lost everything she is vibrant and full of life. Allen falls in love with her all over again, knowing very well he can’t reveal her past, or how he knew her. Beyond melodrama, it’s an exercise in fantasy… and for those unfamiliar with Portrait of Jennie, it’s far closer to earth than his later effort.
The early parts of the film that are firmly rooted in the reality of war and Allen’s mundane and unhappy life are shot very conventionally. The camera is often still, and deep focus is often used extensively. When Singleton enters the picture, and the characters fall in love the film falls into a deep sense of expressionistic fantasy. With a few exceptions, shallow focus is used although it’s often paired with deep fields of view. Characters are often far apart or obscured. Without the deep focus they are often blurred or little more than shadows. While deeply in love, his characters cannot come together as they are haunted by the ghosts of their non-existing past. Even in shooting love scenes, Dieterle uses unconventional angles, often over the shoulder or shoots from above. This seems to have been an inspiration for the beautiful A Place in the Sun, which has an acclaimed love scene between Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor that mirrors very carefully the style employed here. Interestingly enough, looking up the cinematographer Lee Garmes, he’s worked on some of the most beautiful films of the Hollywood era, including several Von Sternberg films (a striking resemblance I didn’t think to make earlier), Scarface, The Desperate Hours, Nightmare Alley, and even Gone with the Wind. Furthermore, exaggerated effects like fog are used, especially in scenes relating to Singleton’s past. It’s an obvious, but effective tool in representing the cloud of her own memories.
The performances and the chemistry of the characters also works, it’s no surprise that Jones and Cotten were paired up again. Cotten himself has a natural talent for men hardened by their past, or haunted by some unknown. His expression is so easily fixed as stone, although in those moments of joy there is a true sense of happiness, even surprise. Jennifer Jones brings a youthful naivety that was necessary for the role. Together they seem to glow, I’d argue they are one of the more memorable screen pairings of classic Hollywood.