Someone to Remember (1943) is a Robert Siodmak film so obscure even Deborah Lazaroff Alpi, author of the near-definitive R.S. overview Robert Siodmak, A Biography, apparently hadn't seen it.
Shot during Siodmak's early B-movie days, before he got his Universal contract and started to make a name for himself, it was produced by Republic and seems more in keeping with their occasional arthouse experiments like Macbeth and Moonrise than with the westerns they otherwise specialized in. Someone in charge must have just liked the story. (Original author Ben Ames Williams also penned the source novel of Leave Her to Heaven, but this one is no noir.) Certainly Siodmak didn't have the artistic reputation in America of Welles or Borzage (or Ford, who made several of his more artisitically rarified ventures at Republic). Siodmak had gone from prominence in Germany and then France, to undistinguished B-movies in America, and only gradually climbed back up to a kind of stature as a thriller specialist. Mabel Paige plays an elderly widow who refuses to move out of her rooms when her apartment building is bought by the university and refitted as halls of residence for male students. So she finds herself living among the boys, and takes an interest in their lives (one of the students is played by a nubile Peter Lawford, but you shouldn't let that worry you—he's in his amusingly earnest Cluny Brown mode and is quite endearing). There are plot twists, but I can't tell you about them.
Well, alright, I can tell you this—Paige has a long-lost son, and she comes to believe that one of the boys she's met is her grandson. She does everything she can to help him out and get his life running smoothly, even encouraging him to elope with the girl he loves—she has an anarchic spirit of romance, this respectable matriarch. And her belief if that when he graduates, and his parents come to visit, she will be reunited with her son and at last find out why he's been away so long.
You know things are not going to turn out that way, and the tension is considerable...
This is quite a hard film to write about, since the most striking thing about it is the emotion it evokes, and that might not be the same for everyone. Declaring "You'll cry yourself blind!" isn't the most helpful thing a critic can do, and it's unfortunately the dominant mode: assume that your readers will all share your response, and advise them whether to see the film based on that. So what would happen if you saw this film and weren't moved? I think the unpredictable story, unusual main character and elegant filmmaking would still impress.
It's a truism that Hollywood seldom makes films about the elderly—the fact that this one was rereleased under an alternate title (Gallant Thoroughbred, ugh!) suggests it struggled to find an audience. Refreshingly, our aged heroine is neither cute like Minnie Dupree in The Young in Heart nor pathetic. She's strong, almost frighteningly determined, and at the same time impishly playful beneath her elegant exterior, a meddling oldster after the fashion of Charles Coburn in Heaven Can Wait, but there's some underlying tragedy. Paige embodies these contradictions exquisitely, with her robust, matronly appearance at odds with her gentle, mellifluous voice, and her simple, matter-of-fact delivery adding another surprising layer: a very modern performance, in its way.
This isn't quite a film made from her perspective: she's too mysterious to be our surrogate. Nor are the young people the main point of view, since we're invited to laugh warmly at their callow ways. Harry Shannon (Charles Foster Kane's dad), the middle-aged, creeping-towards-elderly man, seems to embody the sane, indulgent and humane spirit that animates this film. I think his attitude can be detected behind the lens of most of Siodmak's movies, which is what makes this assignment such a very good fit for him, even though it's far from his usual turf.
Alpi has this one down as a comedy, which proves she hasn't seen it. There are laughs, but it's really a bittersweetly sentimental piece with more teary moments than funny ones. Paige is excellent: witty, dignified and refusing to milk the emotion, and Harry Shannon is also very affecting in his supporting role.
And Siodmak directs the hell out of this thing! Substantial long takes, and an opening that looks to have been inspired by The Last Laugh, as well as putting one in mind of certain films Max Ophüls hadn't even made yet. I guess the Le plaisir-type voiceover (maybe The Magnificent Ambersons could be an influence: later, The Killers would show Siodmak's creative response to the structure of Kane) is picked up again in The Great Sinner. And there's a startling moment when Siodmak, the Mirror Master himself, tracks straight through a mirror without breaking it, or casting a reflection, which must make him the bastard son of Jean Cocteau and Bela Lugosi. Of course, it's easy to guess how the trick was done, but harder to imagine how Siodmak persuaded them to build a wall with a hole in it and a fake mirror frame for a fancy shot, while working on the kind of tight budget and schedule he must have faced.
(I'm not absolutely convinced the shot's purpose justifies its excessive panache—put it down to youthful exuberance if it bothers you.)
Another mirror at the film's near-climax, the night before the putative son's arrival, appears as part of a typically Siodmakian exploration of a room, each object lingered on by the camera taking on some dramatic significance as a result of a non-diegetic soundtrack. And as Paige nears the mirror, she is framed out until only her reflection remains. The camera has become subjective, almost as if we tracked right into her head, and then as she turns from the glass, we pull back out and separate from her again...
Siodmak's career is full of these fascinating neglected crevices—his early German films are largely unavailable, his French ones even more so (Pieges was closely remade by Sirk as Lured, but the original is better), the early American movies are AWOL, even some films from his heyday at Universal and beyond are hard to see, and his return to Europe is only known by a few titles. So there's lots to track down, but it's doubtful if many of those occluded movies will be as fine as this one.
Thanks to Amanda Blackmore for the movie.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.