Once again, Kino Lorber does fans of director Robert Siodmak a service by excavating one of his forgotten and hard-to-see films. Be warned, however, that you mustn’t approach Time Out of Mind (1947) hoping for one of his high noirs, much less a thriller along the lines of The Spiral Staircase (1946). Such expectations have probably worked against Time Out of Mind from the get-go. Siodmak and its star, Phyllis Calvert, disliked this film and were probably reacting to its box office failure and critical dismissal.
Time Out of Mind opens as if it’s a Gothic chiller in Old Dark House mode, and this too may have frustrated viewers’ expectations. During the credits, we presumably see a model or process shot of a big gloomy barrack on a rocky cliff above the raging sea, as if we’re watching an episode of Dan Curtis‘ Dark Shadows (1966-71). As on that gothic soaper, I almost expected the narrator to announce, “My name is Victoria Winters.”
Instead, the narrator is Kate Fernald (Calvert), who goes back in memory to 1899 Maine. Like Victoria Winters, Jane Eyre, or The Spiral Staircase’s heroine, Kate is a servant in a big old mansion. Since her mother is the housekeeper, she’s grown up there and feels almost like an adopted family member, albeit one who knows her place. The house is the family seat of Captain Fortune (Leo G. Carroll), a stiff-necked, regimental, coldly commanding patriarch who comes from a line of sea captains and expects without demur that his sensitive son Christopher (Robert Hutton) will follow in his footsteps instead of “tinkling” on that namby-pamby piano, as Chris prefers.
Christopher’s sister Rissa (Ella Raines) seems to have inherited the starch and backbone, although she wears it in smashing style. She’s so protective of her brother that she gives off a weirdly possessive vibe that hints at an incestuous obsession. The servants gossip that Rissa has always been possessive of Chris. She’s the one prepared to stand up to their father, who slaps her with his one surviving hand. His fake right hand with an enlarged glove, hanging uselessly at an angle, signals some hint of monstrosity or emotional deadness.
Kate quietly worships out-of-reach Chris and would do anything to encourage and support his plans for studying music. She will reveal as much spine as anyone in that house, calmly defying Captain Fortune to his face even as she continues to serve him and laying down the law to anyone misguided enough to defend her from Christopher’s drunken abuse. She does exactly as she wants, making her a character study as “the help” who knows her power. If she were selfish, she’d be one of the genre’s dangerous social climbers, but the story admires her because she applies herself to supporting the wretched Christopher.
We’ve gotten ahead of ourselves, and it’s won’t be the last time, but only by setting out these characters and relations does it become clear that Time Out of Mind is a peculiar form of the gothic tale, even though the house is quickly revealed as bright, light, airy and ghostless. It doesn’t become a dark house until after the halfway mark when the alcoholic Christopher hides away in it. By that time, all the furniture is gone, and this dark transition is quickly dispelled on the plot’s journey to one of Siodmak’s rare, happy endings.
Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but it’s another reason not to approach Time Out of Mind with false expectations. Siodmak specializes in characters caught struggling in webs bigger than themselves, and his films tend to be bleak. This story partakes of that bleakness from Christopher’s POV, for he’s too weak to defy his father without “hiding behind women’s skirts”, as jolly seaman Jake (Eddie Albert) taunts him. Jake represents the “good” manly man while Captain Fortune has become the crippled perversion of the same, thanks to his power and money. Kate doesn’t welcome good Jake, though; she wants problematic Christopher.
Christopher is frankly a self-hating weakling with a destructive streak (we must wonder again at that incestuous undercurrent), and many observers would say he’s not worth the powder. That’s where they’d be wrong. Time Out of Mind is dominated by women who believe in him for various reasons, including the rich, snooty Dora (Helena Carter), who buys him for a husband and seems to share him with Rissa, who’s never apart from them. After Chris publicly crashes and burns, Dora washes her hands of him and suggests she and Rissa should go off around the world together. I’m not making that up.
Kate’s triumph is providing Chris the space to get in touch with his muse, free of distractions. He needs a different kind of coddling. She reminds him of the stormy “drumbeats” of a legendary Indian chief that he’d first pointed out to her as a child on the pounding cliffs and to use the rhythm of sea and wind for his New England Symphony. The robust sounds and vibes of his native soil are better for him than fancy decadent Paris, Time Out of Mind argues. This film, among other genres, is one of the era’s stories of anguished classical composers. The background score and Chris’ music are created by the glorious team of Miklós Rózsa and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.
So what kind of film is this? It’s about art and the nature of creativity, especially classical music and the discovery of uniquely American art. It’s about the human will to support, love, command, and destroy. Time Out of Mind is what the studios called a “woman’s movie”, which were stories centering on choices made by women who negotiated sexism and class to do good work and find some personal reward, usually a husband. It’s also a costume drama, another hardy genre.
Most of all, Time Out of Mind is another dominant type of production: the literary film. It adapts the first of Rachel Field’s three bestselling novels. Hollywood had great success with All This and Heaven Too (Anatole Litvak, 1940), starring Bette Davis in a story based on a real French murder scandal, and And Now Tomorrow (Irving Pichel, 1944), starring Loretta Young as a woman who goes deaf. Their success reminded Universal executives that they still owned rights to 1935’s Time Out of Mind, the first novel to win what became the National Book Award.
Kirkus Reviews in 1935 calls the novel “a philosophical book, carved out of the very soil of Maine. Not for those who want swift action and highly keyed drama, but for those who seek a quiet love story against a background of Nature.” That also would seem to frustrate Hollywood’s genre expectations and may account for why the original film project, conceived for director James Whale, was abandoned.
The long novel is greatly telescoped by screenwriters Abem Finkel and Arnold Phillips, so here’s a property that could stand a television serial remake. Working with photographer Maury Gertsman in black and white, producer-director Siodmak stages one magnificent shot after another in terms of lighting and elaborate camera movement. Combined with art direction by John DeCuir and Bernard Herzbrun, sets by Russell A. Gausman and Ray Jeffers, and costumes by Travis Banton, Time Out of Mind is never less than a visual seduction well served by the Blu-ray’s 2K master.
Let’s call attention to one shot where Kate looks down from the upper hall to Chris finally getting his act together at the piano. He’s far below her, almost in a well of darkness lit by his genius. She, his muse who made it possible, is visually framed by huge shadows of the balusters that seem to entrap her, yet she beams with pride. This is what she’s been working for, and all she cares about and her stubborn will shall bear fruit. Now she only needs to manipulate a prominent critic (John Abbott) and a touchy conductor (Emil Rameau) into accepting the symphony, and that will be child’s play for this miracle worker.
A distant shot looking down upon Kate as she walks along the beach strongly reminds me of a similar shot by John Alton in The Amazing Mr. X (Bernard Vorhaus, 1948) that I can’t help wondering if it’s the same beach. In any case, it’s just a pleasure to stare, and here’s an example of a static shot instead of one of Time Out of Mind‘s many traveling shots.
In the final scene, the camera follows Kate in one unbroken movement as she passes “behind the scenes” of the concert to the opposite box seat, into which she emerges as a theatrical director who commands the next move of the vindictive Dora. We receive the overwhelming sense that Kate, like producer-director Siodmak, has worked to create this world. Her final image is a heartening one of sisterly comradeship with Rissa, although we can’t help wondering how that will work. No, with Kate, we probably needn’t worry. She’s got this.
In the commentary, film writer Lee Gambin discusses Gothic connections. Costume historian Elissa Rose parses which of Banton’s designs are based on fashion in the 1890s and which are modified for 1940s flavor. The commenters suggest an interesting interpretation of Christopher’s head wounds. He’s introduced unconscious and bandaged after a shipboard accident. When he recovers, he begins composing a piece inspired by the ship, which he hates.
Later, Jake knocks out the drunken Chris with a punch for slapping Kate, after which Chris regains his muse. Rose suggests that the head-blows are crucial to foiling and unlocking his genius. In both cases, Kate’s face and voice rouse him from the depths. In other words, he’s always needing gumption knocked into him.
That Time Out of Mind doesn’t fit easily into predictable genre shapes should be seen as a feature, even if many viewers have taken it as a bug. If you know better than to expect another Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940) or Wuthering Heights (William Wyler, 1939), you can see how this film charts it own territory in 90 brisk minutes. Even if Siodmak disliked Time Out of Mind, all of his films are worth seeing. For that matter, and just as a rule of thumb, it’s best to remember that every film made in the 1940s is worth seeing.