Friday, October 15, 2021
The Great Gatsby (1949)
The story, as told in this movie version, is the story of bootlegger Jay Gatsby (Alan Ladd). Gatsby was born penniless and clawed his way to the top in the rackets. Now he’s fabulously wealthy and has just bought a palatial home on Long Island. And he’s spent a fortune turning it into a display case for his wealth. Gatsby’s motivation is simple. During the First World War he fell in love with a girl named Daisy. They were to be married but by the time he returned from the war she had married Tom Buchanan. Tom Buchanan is immensely wealthy and he is Old Money, with impeccable social credentials.
The best moment in the film has Gatsby showing off his possessions to Daisy, firmly convinced that she will be convinced that he now has both wealth and class. But of course he doesn’t really have class at all. All he succeeds in doing is demonstrating his vulgarity. But he’s like an excited little boy and it’s a rare moment in the film with real emotional punch.
The real tragedy is that Daisy is just not worth it. She’s shallow and selfish and she married Tom Buchanan to attain money and social position. She’s a more reprehensible social climber than Gatsby - Gatsby is at least driven by love, however misguided and unrealistic that love may be.
The best thing about this version is Alan Ladd as Gatsby. Gatsby has to be played as a man with superficial sophistication but we have to be able to see the tough guy underneath. He has to be good-looking. He has to be sexy. He has to be emotionally immature but we have to know that the emotion is real. Ladd fought tooth and nail with Paramount to land this rôle which is odd because he was always the obvious choice and he nails it perfectly.
Macdonald Carey is passable but a bit dull as Nick Carroway, a man both repelled by and fascinated by Gatsby. Barry Sullivan is stiff and uninteresting as Tom Buchanan. Ruth Hussey is at least lively and entertaining as Nick’s love interest, the ruthless shallow Jordan. Shelley Winters is permanently overwrought and rather irritating as Tom’s mistress.
The weak point is Betty Field’s whiny thin performance as Daisy. It’s impossible to imagine any man willing to devote his life to such a vacuous female.
I love the poster used as the cover for the Australian DVD release - Gatsby in a trench coat and fedora, surrounded by dangerous dames. It promises guns, girls, gangsters and two-fisted action. There is of course no two-fisted action but there are guns, there are dangerous dames and Gatsby is a gangster.
In fact if you forget the idea of the movie as an adaptation of the novel and treat it as film noir it just about works, thanks to Ladd’s performance and the moody cinematography of John F. Seitz. Elliott Nugent’s unfocused direction and Betty Field’s dismal performance prevent it from being great film noir but it just about makes it as average film noir.
Despite its flaws it’s an interesting movie and for that reason it’s recommended.