Sunday, May 3, 2009
The Fan is an early melodrama from Otto Preminger's long and fruitful 1940s residence at Fox Studios. Loosely based on Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, the film moves fluidly from past to present and back again, using a framing story in which the auction of a delicate, finely crafted fan prompts the reminiscences of the elderly Mrs. Erlynne (Madeleine Carroll), who then tracks down her old acquaintance Lord Darlington (George Sanders). Together, they travel back into the past, lingering on the follies and pleasures of their youth, when they were attractive and fun-loving and both irrepressible adventurers. Though the bulk of the film is set in this past, Preminger does not treat the framing story with the disdain that such conceits usually receive. In these kinds of frothy Hollywood concoctions, the framing story is usually just a slim pretext for telling some other story, but Preminger is interested in these people not just when they're young and witty and good-looking, but when they're old and feeble and forgetful as well. The film becomes as much about the nostalgia of old age as it is about the passionate loves and scandals and betrayals of youth.
In Preminger's hands, this is a prime melodrama, the story of a pure, loving, devoted couple: Lord Arthur Windermere (Richard Greene) and his pretty young wife Margaret (Jeanne Crain). They've been married a year and are deeply in love, but their seemingly idyllic marriage is threatened when the slightly older and notorious Mrs. Erlynne arrives in London. She's a self-described "adventuress" and delights in shocking people by lighting up a cigarette — which gives one some idea of just how easy it is to shock the people in this film's exclusive society circle. The rumors spreading around town about Arthur and this woman provide the perfect excuse for Darlington, who had long admired and desired Margaret and now saw his opportunity to take her away from her husband, who he assumed was being unfaithful anyway. In fact, as is so often the case in these kinds of fairy tale melodramas, all is not as it seems on the surface, and Preminger ably handles the twisty, lurid material, which could have easily boiled over in lesser hands.
His style of languid tracking shots and careful pacing is well-suited to this mannered drama, in which polite words and stylized gestures disguise the barbed insults and insinuations of these upper-class gossips. The disgraced and downtrodden Mrs. Erlynne only wants to make a name for herself in high society, and she's quite willing to resort to dishonesty and trickery to do so. She's conniving and manipulative, and she soon wraps the bumbling, stuttering Lord Augustus (Hugh Dempster) around her little finger. Carroll, the star of early Hitchcock features The 39 Steps and Secret Agent, is fantastic here, in her last film role before a brief fading-away in TV work. It's a shame that there has never been more call for roles like this, which take advantage of an actress' middle age rather than simply discarding her in favor of younger girls.
The subtleties of Carroll's great performance become clear in the scene when Augustus comes to call on Mrs. Erlynne for the first time. She's brusque and remote with him when he arrives, treating him with a thin gauze of manners that marks him out as just one in a long line of callers that day; her courtly façade is starting to wear away. But the minute she realizes that Augustus actually has something of substance to offer her, that because of his status he could be important to her, her entire manner changes. She becomes open and ingratiating, her smile becomes genuine rather than simply polite, and her eyes begin to sparkle. It'd be easy to sell a scene like this broadly, to make it theatrical and overt, and in that case it would be comedy: the beautiful shark taking advantage of a nebbishy bit of chum, and everyone knows it except the poor victim himself. Preminger is too clever for such broad strokes, though, and the performance he gets out of Carroll is more naturalistic and subtle. She makes the scene into character-based drama rather than comedy; instead of laughing, the audience learns more about her character, about what she's willing to do to get what she wants.
The film is packed with such moments. Mrs. Erlynne is a complex character, deceitful and tricky but also decent and good-hearted, self-serving but capable of tremendous acts of self-sacrifice. The central couple of Arthur and Margaret is naturally less interesting, since they provide an idealization of romantic love rather than a pair of convincing characters; they're symbolic and unspoiled while Mrs. Erylnne and Darlington are flawed, realistic characters. Still, Crain gives a warm and sweet performance as the lovestruck woman whose confidence and trust in her husband is shaken by rumors and suspicions. Her pinnacle comes in a striking shot of her and Mrs. Erlynne towards the end of the film, as the older woman tries to convince the younger one to go back to her husband. Preminger stages it as a deep-focus two-shot with Margaret in the foreground, slightly out-of-focus, her blurry features distorted by tears and anguish. Mrs. Erlynne is slightly behind her, her face focused into crisp detail so that the lines of her face are accentuated, calling attention to the age difference between the women.
With scenes like this, Preminger finds unforgettable images in a story that would be all too transitory in the hands of another director. The story is a trifle of a melodrama, silly and contrived, and driven by the oldest of soap fiction inventions, the return of the missing parent. Preminger wisely downplays the narrative's more sensational ideas and mines the more understated and genuine emotions at play here. This has the effect of shifting the focus away from the syrupy romance of the central couple and onto Carroll's world-weary Mrs. Erlynne and Sanders' aging cad Darlington, the former repeatedly beaten down but never broken, the latter maturing into a raffish old goat, still haunted by the great unconsummated love of his past. The dialogue is understated and dotted with Wildean bon mots (especially from Martita Hunt as a chattery duchess), and Preminger's flowing, gracious style complements the delicate emotions and memories at the story's core.