Madame Bovary (1949)

Madame Bovary, 1949, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Jennifer Jones, James Mason, Van Heflin, Louis Jourdan. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. B&W, 115 minutes.

Emma Rouault (Jennifer Jones) is a young woman living alone with her father in rural France, lost in her dreams of romance and excitement, lives she has read about in forbidden novels while in a convent school. One day she meets aspiring doctor Charles Bovary (Van Heflin), who immediately falls for her and pursues her as he tends to her father’s health.

Charles has no illusions about himself. He tells Emma he is a rather dull person and not a highly skilled doctor, but promises to treat her well and provide a good living. Emma, captivated by her own dreams, doesn’t appear to hear his blunt words and lackluster promises when she accepts his proposal.

They marry, and Emma immediately begins living beyond their means, which an indulgent and weak Charles allows. Emma, never satisfied, begins an affair with first another man in their village, then with an aristocrat (Louis Jourdan) who moves nearer to Emma so they can be together.

The realities of life are overwhelming for Emma, and take her on a tragic course that destroys the lives of all who love her most.

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Jennifer Jones, Louis Jourdan

Lana Turner was originally considered for the role of Emma Bovary, but was considered too sensual, a problem given the way producer Pandro S. Berman was trying to frame the film. Too appease censors, he set up the story with the real-life courtroom drama of the book’s author Gustave Flaubert attempting to defend his novel against charges of indecency. In the movie (which loosely draws from the real-life trial), Flaubert, played by James Mason, portrays Emma Bovary as a sympathetic young woman who has fallen under the spell of romantic novels and seeks a lifestyle that doesn’t exist. Her dreams of beauty and excitement make her sympathetic and deserving of forgiveness, Flaubert argues, and not harsh condemnation.

Perhaps it was that set-up of the plot that was problematic for the critic for The New York Times, who questioned whether or not the story of Emma Bovary was “timely.” However, he had high praise for the male stars, saying “Louis Jourdan is electric as her elegant lover, and Van Heflin is quietly appealing as her trusting, small-town spouse.”

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Van Heflin, Jennifer Jones

The tale of Emma Bovary has withstood the changing whims of time because of the unflinching way it reveals human nature and foibles, spelling out the reality of disillusionment and despair in unrelenting terms. The story has been brought to film numerous times, but this production stands out, perhaps because of its stark focus on Emma’s character without sharp judgment, letting the story speak its own truth.

Minnelli’s opulent storytelling, including the dance sequence during which reason is lost and passions are flamed, supplements the great heartache and loss that is found in Madame Bovary. The courtroom drama seems nearly moot in the end, but still leaves us pondering the fate of all who crossed into the life of Emma Bovary.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, 1946, Paramount Pictures. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas (film debut), Lizabeth Scott. Directed by Lewis Milestone. B&W, 116 minutes.

Three childhood friends are linked forever by the truth behind a crime committed by one of them in their youth. Or so two of them believe — and set out to destroy the third before he reveals what they know but can’t say. Only it’s unclear what that third person believes about the crime, or if he even knows one was committed.

Of course, this is film noir, so enter the femme fatale, who becomes a pawn in their plans of betrayal.

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Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas

Van Heflin stars as the affable yet street savvy Sam Masterson, who, purely by chance, finds himself in the town he grew up in with his car in need of repair.

Unaware of the trap he’s about to walk into, he looks up his childhood friends, Walter and Martha O’Neil (Kirk Douglas, Barbara Stanwyck). Along the way he meets the alluring and vulnerable Toni Maracheck (Lizabeth Scott), who has a few secrets of her own.

Heflin is as appealing as any movie star of that era in this film, and brings an effortless, timeless quality to his performance.

Kirk Douglas made his film debut co-starring in this high-profile 1946 movie. His performance as the beaten-down, alcoholic district attorney foretells his quick rise to stardom. Placing a newcomer opposite an established star like Barbara Stanwyck was a bold move, but it paid off.

Stanwyck’s chilling portrayal of a ruthless, guilt-ridden women driven to push her husband to political success shows the depth and versatility of her talent as she reveals all sides of her character with equal skill and believability.

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Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott

True to film noir, it is melodramatic in parts. Overall, it rings true in its characters, their motivation and behavior. I found the start of the film to be a bit slow, but stick with it for essential information. The rest is compelling and suspenseful, with a dramatic finish that wraps up the story in a manner consistent with the plot as a whole.