One of my favorite movies, Remember the Night, became available on DVD this week, thanks to the TCM Vault Collection. It is a film with an impressive pedigree: an original screenplay by Preston Sturges; direction by Mitchell Leisen; and a cast led by Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. A bittersweet love story with romantic-comedy flourishes, it’s one of those rare films to blend dramatic and comedic elements quite easily and naturally.
Stanwyck plays a hardboiled shoplifter arrested in New York. MacMurray is the prosecuting attorney. Feeling guilty about locking her up over the Christmas holiday, he arranges her bail. Because of their shared Indiana roots, he offers to drive her home and then pick her up on his way back to the city. After her disastrous family reunion, MacMurray takes her to his family for the holiday. Stanwyck is bowled over by the family’s hospitality and the couple soon falls in love, despite the likelihood of her incarceration.
I’d go so far as to hail Stanwyck’s performance as her finest, combining some of the best elements of her most famous performances: the unsentimental approach to sentiment that she brought to Stella Dallas (1937); the tough-gal wit with which she endowed Ball of Fire and The Lady Eve, both from 1941; and the calculating smarts of her femme fatale in Double Indemnity (1944). The success of Remember the Night rests on her ability to make a believable and moving transition from a brassy cynic to a woman transformed by the love and kindness that come unexpectedly into her life. As Stanwyck thaws, her characterization deepens, exposing the sensitive and vulnerable young woman who resides underneath her outer display of bitterness and mistrust. Her defenses crumble, along with the years of pain and regret and the lack of any love in her life. What might have been hokey is beautiful to behold because there’s a richness and depth of feeling in this performance (and in the overall film) that is unexpected, heightened by the possibly temporary nature of the character’s newfound good fortune. Neither a martyr nor a masochist, she transcends melodrama thanks to Stanwyck’s timeless honesty and innate dignity. Beulah Bondi (as MacMurray’s mother) and Elizabeth Patterson (as his aunt) are also pretty wonderful.
Remember the Night is one of the major directorial works of the underrated Leisen, and it remains one of the best romantic pictures of its golden age. MacMurray is in tip-top leading-man form, in the first of his four pictures with Stanwyck, followed by Double Indemnity (their most famous teaming and a film-noir high point), The Moonlighter (1953), and the Douglas Sirk melo There’s Always Tomorrow (1956). Sturges, who began directing his own scripts after Remember the Night, worked with Stanwyck on her very next film, The Lady Eve, which contains another reasonable candidate for “greatest Stanwyck performance,” though it is inarguably her funniest.
If you’re looking for a fresh Christmas movie this season, you’re unlikely to find better company than Stanwyck and MacMurray and Sturges and Leisen, and you’ll be certain to remember the night.