Wednesday, July 15, 2009 03:52 PM
On the Viewer - Dark Victory
 by Fëanor

Oh my lord! I rented Dark Victory from Netflix because it was one of those old Hollywood classics I'd never gotten around to seeing. But somehow I'd missed the fact that it's a brutal, over-the-top, no-holds-barred melodrama. It stars Bette Davis as Judith Traherne, a vibrant, carefree, rich socialite who spends her nights partying until dawn and her days riding horses - until the illness she's been trying to ignore finally slows her down enough that she's forced to visit brain specialist Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent), who almost immediately recognizes that she's deathly ill. (A side note: The scene where Judith says she's fine, and then immediately takes a tumble down a flight of stairs is unintentionally hilarious.) [SPOILERS]Dr. Steele is able to somehow fix Judith to the extent that she no longer has any symptoms, but he knows for a certainty that she will die within a year. The only warning will be a slight dimming of the vision, then death. (The film seems to have been written by someone with only the most vague notions of how medicine and the human body work; Traherne's illness is essentially MacGuffinitis.) Steele doesn't want to ruin what time Judith has left, especially since he's falling for her, so he doesn't tell her about this at all, and lets her believe she's completely cured. Her best friend Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) figures out about the deception, but the doctor swears her to secrecy, as well. Thus there follows a lot of Ann and Steele trying desperately to put on brave faces while Judith speaks unknowingly about her future, and about how healthy she is now, and about how Dr. Steele has saved her. Inevitably she falls for Steele, but just as they're about to be married, Steele's secretary foolishly allows Judith to poke around amongst the Doctor's files, and of course she comes across the truth about her condition. Traumatized and furious about being lied to, she leaves Steele and tries to drown her sorrows by going back to her wild ways - binge-drinking with her old buddy Alec (Ronald Reagan!!!), making out with random guys (although this is only implied; we never see her make out with anybody but her husband), pissing off old ladies, and riding lots of horses. But finally, after a candid talk with her stable master (Humphrey Bogart!!!), she realizes she's just been running scared again. She goes back to Steele, makes up with him, and they get married. Three months later, she's happy at home with her husband when suddenly her vision dims and she realizes death is finally coming to claim her. But now it's her turn to lie and put on a brave face! You see, she can't let her husband know she's about to die or he'll certainly stay home from the important medical conference he's about to attend. So she pretends she's well just long enough to get him out the door, then walks bravely upstairs to die alone.[/SPOILERS]

As you can probably tell even from this summary, a viewer of this film will go through various phases of near unbearable agony watching these characters get torn to pieces inside. The final sequence is particularly wrenching. This film isn't just a tearjerker, it's a deluxe model, high efficiency tear extractor! It's really a bit ridiculous. I mean, the whole thing has been carefully constructed with no other purpose in mind than to elicit your (presumably cathartic) weeping. So if you really need a good cry, go for it! It's a bit manipulative, contrived, and overdone for my tastes, but then I never did enjoy melodrama very much. I also find some parts of the movie rather puzzling and even sloppy. I kept waiting for the horse racing subplot to build up to something bigger and it never did. In fact, it doesn't really have to be there at all. It's pretty much just padding. I was surprised to see Humphrey Bogart in the film, and even more surprised when I realized he was a tertiary character who has almost no reason to exist. It doesn't help that Bogey spends all of his screentime wrestling unsuccessfully with a painfully fake Irish accent.

Bette Davis' performance is powerful and effective, as is Geraldine Fitzgerald's. As far as melodramas go, this is a pretty decent one. I'm just not that big a fan of melodramas.
Tagged (?): Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not)

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Welcome to the blog of Jim Genzano, writer, web developer, husband, father, and enjoyer of things like the internet, movies, music, games, and books. For a more detailed run-down of who I am and what goes on here, read this.

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