An Affair to Remember

(Leo McCarey, USA, 1957)


The passage of time can be merciless to some old Hollywood movies, but inexplicably kind to others. Leo McCarey’s An Affair to Remember is a film now veiled in indulgent nostalgia, due in no small part to the fulsome homage it received in Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993).

This is a strange deification of a classic: after all, there are much finer romantic melodramas in the Hollywood canon, beginning with McCarey’s own original version of this film, Love Affair (1939).

The cult of An Affair to Remember, however, is fed by more than simple nostalgia. For many deep-dish film buffs, the late ’50s are a special period. The classical Hollywood of the studio era was in its death throes, and a number of great directors (including Hawks, Ford, Borzage and Chaplin) responded by producing swan songs to this system.

McCarey’s film – sad, leisurely, unfolding in an often surreally stylised movie universe – perfectly captures this melancholic moment in cinema history.

To be frank, only about two thirds of the film are at all watchable. The misty memories of those determined to venerate this movie must erase the saccharine scenes of children singing, and the ham-fisted jokes about television (which look like off-cuts from a Jerry Lewis movie of the period). Even fans might wince at the prolonged and overplayed comic scenes between the stars as they strive to out-mug each other.

But what stars! Cary Grant had by this time entered his ageing seducer phase, playing guys who are charming but cold at heart, as in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959). Grant was able to switch effortlessly between tenderness and aggressiveness, goofiness and pensiveness, and this film uses his range beautifully.

Deborah Kerr, too, found a career highpoint in her role here – mainly because McCarey was always careful to give his heroines attributes of wit, cunning and grace to match their leading men.

It is a premise of many great romantic comedies that the central lovers have a certain aristocratic bearing in relation to the rest of the world. An Affair to Remember makes this premise queasily explicit. Even when Grant becomes a bohemian artist and Kerr devotes her life to underprivileged children, McCarey keeps inserting scenes that demonstrate their innate superiority to the ordinary mugs who gawk in awe at them.

As almost every dedicated filmgoer will know, An Affair to Remember is about two people who fall in love aboard a ship cruise and agree to meet, six months later, atop the Empire State Building ("The nearest thing to heaven we have in New York"). Malign fate intervenes, however, leaving Grant bitter and Kerr silently suffering with her knowledge of the truth. The resolution of this melodramatic tangle comes only in the justly famous final scene – eleven superbly directed minutes of dialogue between Kerr and Grant that are absolutely heartbreaking.

The film may look like a kitsch, Technicolor cartoon, but it is within such pervasive unreality that McCarey finds the true, poetic heart of his tale. It is a story of meetings – chance encounters, surreptitious dates, missed rendezvous. So McCarey bases his entire mise en scène on the dance of bodies meeting and separating, entering and exiting the wide-screen frame, and eyes communicating secretly across distances.

In this exquisite theatre of private passion in a public world, McCarey even places Grant and Kerr’s first kiss out of our view, discreetly – and thrillingly – just above the frame line.

MORE McCarey: The Awful Truth

© Adrian Martin February 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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