Saturday, March 5, 2011

Beyond the Forest (1949)

If you’re a lover of camp and you haven’t yet seen Bette Davis’s 1949 film Beyond the Forest then all I can say is that you have missed out on one of the most awesomely camp extravaganzas in cinematic history. It’s often listed as a film noir although it’s perhaps better described as a noirish melodrama.

The plot is not just pure melodrama. It’s hyper-melodrama. Bette Davis is Rosa Moline. Rosa lives in Loyalton, a small town that is dominated by the local timber mill. She’s married to Dr Lewis Moline (Joseph Cotten), a dedicated small-town doctor who is love and admired by the townsfolk. The townsfolk do not love and admire Rosa. She disturbs them. Disturbs them deeply. She doesn’t like small-town life. She doesn’t like baking. Or children. Or square dancing. Or any of the normal activities of the good citizens of Loyalton. Most of all Rosa does not like the good citizens of Loyalton. Not like is perhaps not quite the correct expression. It would be more accurate to say that she loathes and despises them, and she makes no attempt to hide her contempt.

Rosa was always different. Her dreams were not dreams of domestic bliss in Loyalton. She dreamed of escape to Chicago. Escape to anywhere.

Living in Loyalton is bad enough, but Lewis Moline makes Rosa’s life intolerable. He’s a do-gooder. He doesn’t expect his patients to pay him if they can’t afford it. As a consequence he is not a rich man. More to the point, Rosa is not the wife of a rich man. And she very much wants to be.

She has a candidate in mind. Neil Latimer is a millionaire businessman who owns an enormous hunting lodge on the nearby lake, and Rosa has already managed to attract his interest. In fact she’s started an on-and-off affair with him. But what she wants is to marry him.

The movie starts with an inquest into a fatal shooting, with Rosa apparently the chief suspect. At this stage we have no idea of the identity of the victim. This will be revealed in an extended flashback sequence that occupies most of the movie’s running time.

Bette Davis gives one of the most outrageously over-the-top performances of her career. Given that her career includes so many outrageously over-the-top performances I realise that’s quite a claim, but it’s a claim I stand by. It’s not just her performance that is extraordinary. She was a decade too old for the role, and she has her hair dyed jet black. Her appearance is truly bizarre. Somehow though these things end up counting in her favour. It’s obvious that Rosa, despite her scheming and her breath-taking ruthlessness, has no hope whatever of realising her dreams, that any chance she might have had of doing so is long gone. As a result the viewer cannot help feeling sorry for her. She’s a tragedy waiting to happen.

King Vidor directed the movie, and he did so in an overwrought and wildly melodramatic style. Combined with the subject matter and Davis’s acting what you end up with is massive camp overkill. Davis and Vidor though are not afraid of being melodramatic, they are not afraid of going too far, and the results are splendidly entertaining. King Vidor had by this time been directing for three-and-a-half decades so he knew a thing or two about making movies. There’s no question that the excessiveness of this picture was a conscious choice, and with a story like this one it was arguably the only valid choice.

Joseph Cotten’s understated acting style proves a perfect foil for Davis. Ruth Roman provides additional fun as Rosa’s perpetually rebellious housemaid.

The final sequence involving the train is a tour-de-force of movie melodrama.

Sadly this movie is unavailable on DVD but being a Warner Brothers production it turns up on TCM in Australia from time to time and I assume it gets screened on TCM in the US at various times as well. It’s a movie not to be missed by fans of cinematic excess, and most certainly not to be missed by fans of Bette Davis. As the original poster for the film so aptly put it, nobody’s as good as Bette when she’s bad.

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