For Reel

Back Street (1932)
April 11, 2016, 5:12 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: John M. Stahl
3.5 Stars
Back StreetBetween 1932 and 1935, director John M. Stahl filmed three enormously prestigious melodramas that would later be eclipsed in film history by their remakes: Back Street, Imitation of Life, and Magnificent Obsession. Stahl’s current reputation as a Douglas Sirk prototype is primarily the result of their each filming versions of the latter two films, although as storytellers the two had quite different preoccupations. Sirk’s narratives were driven by the heft of accumulated words and gestures, whereas Stahl’s characters often pass through their narratives episodically, obsessed with rebuilding instead of preserving an emotional momentum. Back Street involves a three decades long love affair in which the romance is rarely seen as pleasurable, but instead as a series of false starts and small heartbreaks. Irene Dunne plays the kept woman (or “back street” woman) of John Boles, whose obsession with the man keeps her from pursuing her passions elsewhere. John Flaus’ article on the film for Sight & Sound argued that the film marked a retreat from expressionism, but it is actually among the most attractive and expressionistic of pre-Code melodramas. Shot by Karl Freund with Charles D. Hall serving as art director, it bridges the gap between the early-1930s Universal horror films and melodramas, encouraging high contrast visuals, deep stagings, and an evocative use of off screen space. For a melodrama, very few close-ups are used, and tellingly the most memorable of which is a still image of a telephone as pained voices inform the drama off screen. Stahl and Freund occasionally indulge camera movements not motivated by the action—a memorable establishing shot introduces a turn-of-the-century Cincinnati beer garden—and, in one of the stronger scenes, Stahl makes the wistful choice of filming a highly charged reunion with the lovers facing away from the camera. If Stahl’s method of dramatizing this masochistic affair does not offer the visceral pleasures expected of its genre, it sustains an indelibly melancholic atmosphere.

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