‘Desire Me’ Leaves Much to Be Desired, Unless You Look at It through a Noir Lens

[27 June 2014]

By Michael Barrett

We live in an historical moment when studios have learned to advertise every routine crime thriller as “film noir”, because that genre has an attentive audience. For example, Warner Archive packages some of its titles with a Film Noir banner wrapped across the top, the better to attract viewers.

They’re missing a chance here, because the once-notorious flop Desire Me easily fits the “noir” label, even though it’s fundamentally a “woman’s picture”, a romantic melodrama conceived as a vehicle for Greer Garson. Seen as a noir film, it’s not nearly as bad as its reputation. In fact, it’s fascinating.

Garson plays Marise, who opens the film seeing a doctor who tells her there’s nothing plaguing her physically but she needs to come to terms with something she’s repressing, and she wrings her hands over the fact that she doesn’t deserve to return to “the man who’s waiting for her”.

This triggers a flashback to her husband in a German POW camp during WWII, even though she can have no direct knowledge of this and has no real business flashing back to it unless it’s only something she imagines. There, her husband Paul (Robert Mitchum) endlessly discusses the details of his life with Marise, who waits in their fabulously quaint cottage on the shore of Brittany.

As his own narration projects himself into the future when he’ll return to walk those streets, we see what we might interpret as that fantasy, except it turns out to be the reality of the other prisoner, Jean (Richard Hart), doing the walking. He enters the house and makes himself at home (all narrated by Mitchum’s fantasy), startling Marise. By now, the viewer may be a bit foggy about whose narrating what or what’s actually happening, but this is a confusion audiences are more prepared to enjoy today than in 1947.

Jean gives off weird get-him-outta-here vibes, but Marise falls for his story that he witnessed Paul’s death (more flashbacks!) and she ends up accepting his company. They have such a good time (especially after she sees him bathing naked in a tidal pool) that within a week she agrees to marry him. Ah, but the audience already knows, thanks to one of Jean’s short flashbacks within the flashback, that Paul is really still alive and sure to return soon.

If you think about this too closely, it doesn’t make much sense. Did Jean escape the camp (as per flashback) only a week before peace was declared and prisoners returned home (Paul has also been in hospital), or did he wait an inexplicably long time before going to Brittany?

Marise’s final anguished confession to Paul, elliptical as it is, only makes sense if she’s confessing that she’s already had sex with Jean within the last week since she met him, and that’s something the censors wouldn’t allow her to say bluntly. She and Paul must huff and puff and dance around it, implying like gangbusters, even though the short time frame (and Jean’s off-putting behavior) makes it hard to believe.

It turns out that she’d also received previous word (mistaken, obviously) that Paul was dead even before Jean told her so, which is both convenient and mystifying, because she also says she waited faithfully in certainty that he was still alive. Until she suddenly had another man in the house.

Desire Me‘s anguished and convoluted production history, which feels even more unlikely than anything in the picture, is told in detail on TCM’s website. There are some contradictions between their main article and their “Notes”, but what I extract is that it was filmed amid many interruptions (including a very serious injury sustained by Garson) and rewrites during 1946, then largely rewritten and refilmed in 1947.

Director George Cukor began the project, with Victor Saville substituting at one point, and eventually Mervyn Leroy finished it. The final product is apparently the first major Hollywood film to have no director credit, because nobody wanted to claim it.

It’s fair to ask why MGM and producer Arthur Hornblow Jr. ever undertook this project, when it’s based on a novel that never could have been filmed under Hollywood’s Production Code. Leonhard Frank, a German writer, had written this popular romance called Karl and Anna in the ‘20s and turned it into a Broadway play in 1929. A rather cleaned-up version was filmed in Germany as Heimkehr in 1928. TCM reports that the Breen Office warned MGM that many changes would be needed in Frank’s story, as “it amounts practically to a condonation of adultery.”

I haven’t read Frank’s book, but an excellent article about it by Brian Murdoch, written for the Forum for Modern Languages in 2002, can be found online here: “War, Identity, Truth and Love: Leonhard Frank’s Karl und Anna” (Oxford Journals). He places the story in the context of Biblical (David and Bathsheba) and Greek myths (Amphitryon) and their incarnations in the French legend of Martin Guerre, Balzac’s novel Colonel Chabert, and Tennyson’s Enoch Arden.

The latter is a famous poem about a man who returns home to discover his “widow” has legally married another man, and he has such a noble soul that he departs without revealing his identity. This story was so familiar to 1947 audiences that the New York Times reviewer describes Desire Me as a variation and reviews it as such.

It’s worth noting, however, that although there were silent versions, no post-Code Hollywood talkies are a straight telling of the story. The closest variant is the 1940 comedy Too Many Husbands, which is actually based on a Somerset Maugham play.

In Frank’s book, which is set in Germany during WWI, the returning soldier claims to be the missing husband and reels off many details to prove it. The wife knows it isn’t true, but falls in love with him anyway and gets pregnant, with all their neighbors remaining under the impression that the man is really her husband. When the husband returns, she says it’s up to her to decide what to do, and she leaves with her lover.

Clearly, this is an impossible story for 1947 Hollywood, and the final product twists the original premise into incredible contortions. Indeed, the 1928 German film makes things more chaste and turns the hubby into another Enoch Arden.

Casey Robinson (credited with “adaptation”) took the first turn, and thanks to his string of classic Bette Davis scripts in the ‘40s, nobody had a higher reputation for this sort of picture. The footage shot in 1946 was scripted by two more heavyweights: Sonya Levien (whose string of hits include an earlier Garson vehicle, The Valley of Decision ) and Zoe Akins.

Akins, whose most popular screenplay was for Greta Garbo’s Camille, had won a Pulitzer for her play based on Edith Wharton’s story The Old Maid, the film of which was scripted by Robinson. Marguerite Roberts, future scripter of True Grit, was commissioned for extensive rewrites for the 1947 reshoots. Levien is the only writer omitted in the credits of the final product.

Upon its release, Desire Me did sell tickets ($2.5 million worldwide), but not enough to recoup its now grossly overbudgeted $4 million. Critical and audience response was at best lukewarm, but that cannot be due to Garson’s mannerisms or the far-fetched plot, which go with the territory. Garson starred in another husband-returns-from-war melodrama, Random Harvest, a gigantic smash with an infinitely more preposterous story.

Another huge wartime hit, the Vivien Leigh remake of Waterloo Bridge, rewrote the pre-Code prostitution drama in a way that asks us to believe women couldn’t find work in wartime. Melodramas weren’t supposed to make sense; they only needed to “resonate” (as we say now) with real emotions, even if the extreme storylines warped themselves into knots for it.

It’s possible that MGM thought an update and radical revision of this property was viable because of the theme of soldiers returning to changed circumstances at home. This is why Marise explains that theirs is “a common story” now. To judge by the reviews in the New York Times and Variety, nobody objected to the strained plot so much as to the slow pace and the confusing flashback structure. The New York Times readily acknowledged the “wonderful scenery” and the “exciting” climax in what it considered an old-hat Enoch Arden theme.

The short review in Variety refers to “the technical excellence of mounting” and “kudos for some topnotch atmospheric effects, a number of strong, emotional scenes and occasional suspense.” It concludes: “Greer Garson’s role requires continual emotional stress that makes for a heavy job but she is capable. Robert Mitchum has too little footage as the husband but he makes every scene count. Richard Hart, the betrayer of the faithful wife, is permitted to overstress his designs where underplaying would have aided.”

You see, even ‘40s-era reviewers weren’t bothered by the senseless plot itself, and they recognized clear pictorial virtues, of which Joseph Ruttenberg’s photography offers a darkling plenty. Indeed, visually, this is one of the darkest movies of the era without private eyes or werewolves. The POW scenes are shot in almost complete night broken by a regular searchlight, an effect that echoes the lighthouse motif of the scenes in Marise’s cottage. While each is separate from the other, their worlds are almost totally black. Scenes inside the slatted boathouse are worthy of John Alton, the wizard of noir lighting.

I kept thinking if this neglected film were properly restored to what must have been its original lustre, it would look beautiful. Instead, this ordinary print looks sometimes murky, and expensive restoration doesn’t seem likely for such a floperoo. That’s a shame, because all those earlier moody scenes hardly prepare us for the audacity of the eerie fogbound climax, which the original reviewers registered as exciting.

Scored only by a mournful foghorn, warning of murder like a banshee, all three characters wander, barely visible, in a fog thicker and obscurer than the plot. At this point, the movie is officially surreal and existential.

The great Ruttenberg shot the aforementioned Waterloo Bridge, Random Harvest, The Valley of Decision, and also Garson in Mrs. Miniver. He isn’t known as a noir photographer, though he did Fritz Lang’s Fury and Anthony Mann’s Side Street, and also Cukor’s Gaslight. That last might be considered a hybrid noir, and it’s discussed as such in an appendix of Elizabeth Ward and Alain Silver’s Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, but they credit Cukor with only one official noir, A Double Life.

Due to the confused history of Desire Me, it’s uncertain how much he can be credited with this one either, and its reputation as a botched woman’s melodrama has probably prevented noir fans from stumbling upon it. They may be pleasantly surprised to discover such a stylistically adventurous bit of uncanny claptrap.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/183058-desire-me/