Tuesday, November 25, 2008
The Talk of the Town
The Talk of the Town is a truly preposterous film, a bloated epic that isn't sure if it's a legal thriller, a screwball comedy, or a love triangle romance. Director George Stevens does his best to juggle a whole lot of balls here, some of which are pretty hard to keep in the air starting with the ridiculous premise, in which the anti-capitalist radical Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant) is framed for arson and murder, escapes from jail, and winds up hiding out with spunky schoolteacher Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur) and future Supreme Court justice Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman). Nothing is said outright, but it's heavily suggested that Leopold is some kind of pseudo-socialist agitator, rousing up the people of the town against corrupt factory boss Andrew Holmes (Charles Dingle). Holmes, in turn, pins the burning of his factory on Leopold, a convenient scapegoat to cover up his own insurance scams. The outlines of this intrigue are made apparent right from the start, and despite a very effective Wellesian suspense sequence in which Leopold makes his escape through a rainy bog, accompanied by exclamation-laden newspaper headlines, the film's emphasis is not on its thriller aspects.
Rather, the film's core lies in the contrast that develops between two opposing outlooks on the law: Leopold's practical, common sense variety, seen from the perspective of an innocent man wrongly accused; and the iron, unshakable faith in justice possessed by Lightcap, a scholar who never considers the practical applications of the law but only its "principles." Grant plays his side of it well, and his character is in some ways very similar to his part in George Cukor's great Holiday: a common sense kind of guy, with little patience for ceremony or tradition, who wants to make his own way. It's often forgotten that Grant, despite his well-earned reputation as a suave Hollywood leading man, was just as good at playing earnest, rugged proles. His dark stare and expressive face are perfectly suited to Leopold, who can be fierce and passionate in an argument and yet curiously relaxed when facing down his own impending death. He increasingly settles in around Lightcap's house, posing as a gardener and engaging the law professor in legal argumentation while gulping down prodigious quantities of food. It's all faintly absurd, and would barely hold together if not for Grant's typically game, laidback performance.
Even so, the film's greatest asset is unarguably Jean Arthur, who provides most of the laughs as the high-strung schoolteacher who becomes entangled with both Leopold and Lightcap, desperately trying to hide the escapee's secret from the professor as they all live uneasily under the same roof. Arthur is a total riot, and her performance goes a long way towards making the film bearable even in its dullest stretches. She's always active with some small bit of business, enlivening the film with her rubbery command over her face. She's always flitting about, bird-like, her carriage thrust forward, chirping and smiling broadly, her body propelled by uncontainable nervous energy. In a scene where Leopold sneaks around the house in search of food, Nora gapes in shock and horror at the convict tip-toeing through the kitchen right behind the professor's back, but she keeps taking dictation the whole time, without letting her pen pause. Her increasingly outlandish attempts to hide Leopold and then, when he's relatively out in the open as the gardener, to keep his secret, inspire some great comic lunacy, like the scene where she squeals and hurls an egg onto a newspaper photo of Leopold's face, letting the yolk come to rest neatly right beneath the escapee's hat. Even when there are no plot contrivances necessitating these kinds of gymnastics, Arthur is a blast. One of the film's best scenes is an utterly extraneous throwaway where Nora poses coquettishly in front of a mirror, pulling a stray curl of hair under her nose like a mustache and telling herself how pretty she is.
As funny and lively as Arthur is, neither her whirling dervish performance nor the able sparring of Grant and Colman can entirely save a film that is basically flawed right from conception. The cast does a fine job with what they're given, but the plot is just too much of a meandering mess and the shifting genres and moods are sloppily handled. One hardly knows what to make of a bizarre scene where Lightcap shaves off the beard he's long worn, a symbol of his isolation and containment in an ivory tower. At this moment, Stevens cuts away to a poignant, vaseline-lensed closeup of Lightcap's black valet (Rex Ingram), who grows bleary-eyed and actually begins to cry at the sight. It's hilarious, if only because its intent is so puzzling and its execution so strange. Can this maudlin moment really be meant in earnest? It's hard to believe that Stevens would invest so much of the film's melodrama into the shaving of a beard, but there's little enough to indicate it's a joke either and if it is, it's probably a somewhat mean one on the sentimental black servant.
This odd scene is indicative of the ambivalent effect of the film as a whole. Stevens can often be technically effective in isolated scenes, and he has an especially good hand for crowded comedy. An early scene where Nora frantically tries to clear out the house only to have more and more people unexpectedly arrive is particularly sharp in its sense of comic timing and its handling of the increasingly cramped space in front of the camera. But no matter how good individual scenes can be, the whole thing holds together awkwardly, particularly in the slapdash and seemingly never-ending finale, which finally shambles to an unsatisfying resolution after way too many half-realized false endings. The film is a sporadically interesting and even entertaining mess, but it's a failure nonetheless.