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  • Michael Ballard

Dodsworth (1936): The Subtle Power of Cinema


Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston), a self-made millionaire, has decided to retire, sell his company and, at the insistence of his wife, Fran (Ruth Chatterton), take a trip to Europe. While the thought of retirement leaves him gloomy, Sam says he is looking forward to the experience. It’s going to give him a new perspective on things. “Why, I might get to know myself at the same time,” he says, and adds, prophetically, “I might even get to know my wife.” In time, he will come to regret his newly acquired education.

On the cruise, both husband and wife have a wonderful time, only separately. He likes to soak up the sights, the sounds, and the people around him. She enjoys hobnobbing with the jet-set and flirting with a young lothario (a debonair David Niven). Those differences will ultimately divide them and set their marriage on a turbulent course.

Dodsworth is an exceptional film about the hapless pursuit of fulfillment. Its presentation is so simple (understated, even) that the climax, Sam's epiphany, might catch you by surprise.

Outstanding performances

As the title character, Huston runs the gamut, from adolescent exuberance to utter desolation and, in the end, a sort of fervent rebirth when he finally finds his way. It would be easy to dismiss Fran Dodsworth as an empty, status-seeking bore, but Chatterton's performance offers heartbreaking glimpses into a woman afraid of growing old, and the desperate lengths she will take to avoid such an admission. Together, Chatterton and Huston are an explosive pair. Their face-offs--as they bicker, argue, grow apart, come back together and, finally, break up once and for all--are exhilarating.

Exploiting the tools of cinema

One of cinema's all-time greats, director William Wyler, was at the helm of this little gem. There’s nothing flashy in Wyler’s filmmaking style; but how he exploits and takes full advantage of his cinematic tools--composition, lighting, camera placement--is subtle and brilliant.

In one scene, as Fran tries to explain why Sam should return to America without her (so that she might continue to frolic among her new cronies, the jet-setting beau monde of Europe’s upper crust), she paces back and forth, fully lit, in mid-ground, constantly glancing at her husband to gauge his response. The camera must pan left and right to keep up with Fran’s nervous pacing. Meanwhile, Sam does not move. He sits in the foreground, in silhouette, dejected and beaten.

Now, I say Sam does not move, which, technically, is true; he is seated. But as Fran paces and the camera follows her, Sam’s profile moves from one side of the frame to the other. It’s as if he is unmoored, without anchor, cast adrift. And as he is in silhouette, there is not much detail to take in. What we see is a mere outline, a shadow of a man.

Another example of Wyler’s cinematic understatement: Normally, when a character is about to make a decision, the camera will be on him so that we can see him going through the process of making up his mind. However, in one pivotal scene, Wyler does a 180. It’s the last scene between Sam and Fran. They are on the ship that will soon be taking them back to America, seated in an open area where other passengers are milling about. There comes a point in what is primarily a one-sided conversation (Fran does most of the talking) when Sam finally realizes his marriage is over and decides to get off the ship and leave Fran for good.

Toward the end of this exchange, Wyler locks the camera down, aiming it at Fran, from over Sam’s shoulder; in a single, unbroken take, lasting over sixty seconds, Fran complains and whines, mocks other passengers, teases and badgers Sam, and ridicules people they know back in the States. There are no cutaways to see how Sam is reacting to her behavior. By holding the shot on Fran, director Wyler puts us in her husband’s place. When the shot finally cuts to Sam, we and Fran’s beleaguered spouse have made up our minds at the same time.

Storyteller and artist

Dodsworth is a simple tale, simply told, filled with compassion and insight. The understated approach adopted by Wyler is nothing new for the director. In film after film (The Best Years of Our Lives, Jezebel, The Letter), we are treated to the subtle power of great cinema by way of compelling performances and the director’s masterful use of the filmmaker’s tool kit, all brought together to tell entertaining stories and, at times, offer some glimpses of the faults, foibles, fears, yearnings, and joys of the human heart.

Dodsworth airs on TCM, Sunday, June 7th, at 9am, PDT.