Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas Holiday (1944)

Christmas Holiday is a pretty strange title for a film noir. Even stranger, this is a film noir starring Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin. On the other hand it is directed by Robert Siodmak, one of the grand masters of noir, and it is based on a short story by W. Somerset Maugham. It’s odd that more of Maugham’s stories weren’t given the film noir treatment - he was an author with the right sort of sensibility for film noir.

Maugham’s story has been Americanised but setting it in New Orleans gives it the kind of overheated slightly sinful tropical tone that is found in so much of Maugham’s work.

The film has the classic noir structure with most of the story being told through flashbacks. A young artillery officer, Lieutenant Charles Mason (Dean Harens), is heading to San Francisco on leave to marry his sweetheart. Just as he’s about to leave the catch the plane he gets a Dear John letter. He’s determined not to take this lying down and sets off for San Francisco anyway. The aircraft runs into bad weather and is diverted to New Orleans. The dirty weather has set in for quite a while. He ends up in a bar where he meets hardbitten night-club singer Jackie Lamont (Deanna Durbin). It is Christmas Eve and she asks him to take her to Midnight Mass. Afterwards she tells him her story, taking us into the first flashback.

Jackie used to be Abigail Martin and she was married to Robert Manette (Gene Kelly). Manette is the weak, self-indulgent spoilt offspring of one of the leading families in New Orleans. He’s a charming but decidedly shady character and Abigail gets her first glimpse into the noir abyss when he comes home late at night with a great deal of money and bloodstains on his clothing.

Robert and Abigail live with Robert’s mother. Mrs Manette (Gale Sondergaard) has all the strength that Robert lacks but it doesn’t do either of them much good since her strength expresses itself in over-protectiveness which simply encourages Robert’s self-indulgence and weakness of character. The relationship between mother and son is clearly not a healthy one. The second flashback tells us how Robert and Abigail met, and we get a bit more insight into that unhealthy mother-son relationship.

Abigail is just too innocent to see the obvious warning signs. Robert is a gambler with no self-control, selfish and immature but of course he promises her he’s going to give up gambling and she believes him. Sooner or later Robert is going to get himself into big trouble. Abigail isn’t strong enough or worldly enough to stop him and while his mother is aware of his character flaws he remains her blue-eyed boy and she has clearly made the mistake of rescuing him whenever he gets into trouble. He’s never had to deal with consequences and he’s never learnt responsibility. This is not going to end well but Abigail is going to go on loving him.

This is a role-reversal film noir with Gene Kelly as the pretty boy homme fatale who leads good girl Deanna Durbin into the noir nightmare world. Gene Kelly does a decent job. He’s charming enough to convince us that he could have persuaded the na├»ve Abigail to fall in love with him and he’s creepy enough to make us wish that she hadn’t fallen for him.

Deanna Durbin’s lightweight musicals were among Universal’s most reliable money spinners. She was obviously anxious to try her hand at some serious acting and she succeeds pretty well. It’s a challenging role since she has to play the same character at two different stages of her life - as the innocent kid from Vermont who fell for Robert Manette, and as the hardbitten night-club chanteuse that she is now. Wisely she doesn’t try to make Jackie too hardboiled - Durbin was no Joan Bennett but that’s OK because Jackie isn’t all that hardboiled - the sweet kid from Vermont is still there under the cynical shell that she tries to project. And naturally she gets to sing a couple of songs.

Siodmak displays his usual sure touch. This is a movie that switches between typical noir scenes (with seedy night-clubs and rainy night shooting) and bright cheerful sunlit scenes as we move between the present and Jackie’s chequered past. Woody Bredell’s cinematography is impressive (not surprising considering that he shot the classic noirs Phantom Lady and The Killers for Siodmak).

The script is perhaps just a little too predictable. Fortunately the movie has other compensating strengths - the interesting three-way dynamic between Abigail, Robert and his mother, some good atmosphere, a generally handsome look and fairly effective performances.

Special mention must be made of the contribution of the art directors, Robert Clatworthy and John B. Goodman. There are some wonderful multi-level partly indoor and partly outdoor sets that capture the New Orleans atmosphere very neatly.

The Region 2 DVD from Simply Media offers a reasonably satisfactory transfer although the sound quality is a little uneven at times.

Christmas Holiday is not one of Siodmak’s best efforts but it’s a worthwhile second-tier noir  made more interesting by the unusual casting. Recommended.

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