Saturday, September 25, 2021

The Macomber Affair (1947)

British-Hungarian director Zoltan Korda’s The Macomber Affair is based on Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. It’s interesting that the most successful Hemingway adaptations (The Killers, To Have and Have Not) aren’t true adaptations - they merely take a Hemingway novel or story as the starting point. The more faithful adaptations don’t seem to work quite as well. Hemingway seemed on the surface to be ideal material for Hollywood but this wasn’t really the case. The raw existentialism of Hemingway could never be made palatable to Hollywood’s audience and without that raw existentialism Hemingway’s work loses its soul.

There’s the added problem that so much of the impact of Hemingway came from his prose style. Those. Very. Short. Sentences. Trying to reproduce the effect of the sparseness of Hemingway’s style was an almost insurmountable hurdle for film-makers. The opening scenes of Robert Siodmak’s 1946 version of The Killers is as close as anyone got.

Wilson (Gregory Peck) is a big-game hunter and he’s just returned from a hunting trip with the body of Francis Macomber. He had taken Macomber and his wife on a hunt and Macomber was accidentally shot.

We get the full story in a lengthy flashback. Macomber (Robert Preston) is a rich cocky American who claims to be an experienced hunter and he’s keen to demonstrate his hunting prowess in Africa. His wife Margo (Joan Bennett) is coming along as well. She doesn’t seem overly excited about this. The flirting between Wilson and Margo Macomber begins even before they set out on the hunt. We quickly figure out that while Wilson can face a charging elephant or lion without flinching he’s a lot less comfortable with women. Especially women who are beautiful, bored, unhappily married and obviously sexually frustrated. He’s never hunted that sort of game before. The obvious danger is that in this hunt it’s the woman who is going to be the hunter while Wilson is the prey.

There’s a nice scene early on, in fact on the first night out in the bush. Mr and Mrs Macomber have retired for the night in their separate bunk beds, each bunk bed fully enclosed in its own zip-up mosquito net. You get the feeling that that sums up their marriage - two people in separate totally enclosed worlds. It’s not just the obvious lack of sexual intimacy (although that is very obvious) but the lack of any kind of intimacy or communication at all. And even before this it has become clear that they don’t have conversations. They speak to each other quite a lot but both husband and wife are in fact having entirely separate conversations. It’s also clear that Macomber honestly has no idea what has happened to his marriage although he certainly knows that something is wrong with it.

Perhaps Macomber has come to Africa to prove his manhood and regain his wife’s love. Unfortunately what he proves, almost immediately, is that he is a coward. And he proves it in full view of his wife. Her indifference to him instantly becomes contempt. It’s also reasonable to assume that she feels humiliated, having her husband display his cowardice in front of another man.

She clearly considers that her husband is not a real man. But she is pretty sure that Wilson is a real man. In a situation in which her husband displayed his cowardice Wilson displayed coolness and quiet courage. That does something for a woman.

Macomber’s problem now is to find a way to overcome his cowardice. Maybe killing a buffalo, an animal considered even more dangerous than a lion, will help. If he can do it.

This seems to be a classic romantic triangle but in fact Wilson is just an observer.

This movie really is a total trainwreck. It has some fine moments but it doesn’t hold together. The characters are the problem. Wilson is a nonentity. Francis Macomber is a repulsive human being. Whether he’s a physical coward or not, whether he faces his fears or not, he’s a repulsive human being. It’s hard to care what happens to him. That leaves Margo as the only interesting character but her motivations are obscure to say the least. Much of this may have been due to the infantile restrictions of the Production Code. The script seems to aim for moral ambiguity and to make Margo a complex woman, but as far as the Production Code is concerned Good Girls get married at the end of the picture and Bad Girls find redemption by dying nobly. The writers clearly didn’t want to have such a clear-cut ending. They wanted ambiguity. They tried to get it, but at the cost of making Margo’s motivations incomprehensible rather than ambiguous.

It’s not the fault of the cast. Gregory Peck does what he can but Wilson is a badly underwritten character. Robert Preston tries hard. Joan Bennett is generally excellent and has some terrific moments but her big moments at the end are hampered by the confused script.

Assuming that Hemingway’s main interest was in the whole facing up to death and embracing it thing, that’s there but it wouldn’t have made an entire feature film and audiences wouldn’t have liked it and the studio wouldn’t have liked it and the Production Code Authority wouldn’t have liked it. So we get a romantic triangle as the focus instead. But it’s a romantic triangle that doesn’t really engage our interest since the only character we have the slightest interest in is Margo. And while Joan Bennett does what she can to inject some sexual tension into proceedings there is once again the Production Code, which ensures that it all remains much too tame.

If you want to see this movie on DVD your only choice seems to be the Spanish DVD release. It includes the English soundtrack with removable Spanish subtitles. Picture quality isn’t stunning but it’s quite OK. Sound quality is fine.

There’s an excellent review of this movie at Riding the High Country. Colin liked the movie much more than I did. Overall The Macomber Affair just didn’t really engage my interest.

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