Since You Went Away (1944) was on TCM late Friday night. I wrote my MA thesis on this film, and have seen it countless times, but hadn't watched it in about a decade. I came in just as Guy Madison's sailor got on the bus, and Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones walked into the nearby soda shop to continue their date. What follows is a variation on Classical Hollywood shot/reverse-shot framing. It lasts less than five minutes, but I've been haunted by it ever since.
A dissolve carries us from the street to the booth seen above, as the waitress hands Bill (Walker) and Jane (Jones) their menus, and the silhouetted WAC at her elbow leans left to speak to an unseen companion; the hard-edged cinematography of the film (credited to Stanley Cortez and Lee Garmes, but added to by others) sculpts the figures in relief against the rococo backgrounds that illustrate images from children's fantasy literature and nursery rhymes.
The art design and the sentimental mickey-mousing of the music emphasize the child-like naivete of Bill and Jane as they fumble towards expressing their love, but the ages of Jones and Walker (she was 24 during filming, he was 25) jars this construction, as if something older and darker was intruding on its neatness, like the shadow falling across the side of Walker's face. Bill is a shy young man who fears he is a disappointment to his grandfather, a career soldier; the Humpty-Dumpty comparison in this shot is on-the nose, but director John Cromwell and producer/auteur David Selznick use the hard outline of his head to give the distance between face and egg both a real and metaphorical weight; like so much in this patriotic wartime melodrama, theme here is constantly evoked and then undercut by staging and performance.
Bill and Jane order their drinks (he nervously orders the same thing she does, until she reminds him he could order something different). He asks if he can smoke, and she says of course; he nervously finagles a pack out of his pocket and takes out a smoke, but never lights it. She asks him why he's so nervous, as the scene cuts to her side of the table.
Is Bill Jane's lost sheep? Bill is her second choice, after her failed schoolgirl attempt to woo the older Joseph Cotten (who is grappling with his own feelings for the married Claudette Colbert, who plays Jane's mother). She looks across the table with a possessed glare that matches that of the Bo-Peep behind her; her brunette hair blends into the shadow of the upper left, contrasting with Peep's blonde curls. She encourages Bill to be more confident, wonders why he is so insecure; when she asks if his worry is linked to his grandfather's emotional dominance, she stumbles on the line, and the cut back to Walker shows him looking away, turning towards the shadows on his left. They parallel those behind her head, linking them in the play of light and dark.
Jones and Walker were facing the dissolution of their real-life marriage as Since You Went Away shot, and she was romanced by Selznick in plain view of everyone, giving this dialogue of romance and approval a prickly meta edge. There were fights after their tender love scenes, and Walker would have breakdowns and have to be coaxed to the set. Walker had suffered through the divorce of his own parents, which exacerbated a lifelong depression and anxiety; he drank heavily as Selznick wooed Jones in the early 1940s, was arrested on a hit-and-run charge, and then signed up to play her gentle soldier beau in this film, for the very man who had helped cause their estrangement. There's an amazing moment just after the shot above, when he stumbles across a memory of his mother: "Mother...died when I was born so (he shrugs) I never knew her..." There's a pause, as if he's forgotten the lines he's memorized, and feels the need to correct, to annotate, with an embarrassed smile: "Well, of course I never knew her..." It's a moment that's interrupted by the waitress with their sodas, by Walker's swallow of ice cream off his long spoon, by mentions of how his ancestor might have fought with Washington at Yorktown. But nothing (not even the sickly sweet score that plays under the dialogue) can undercut the melancholy of Bill's self-image, the way Walker keeps looking down, away from Jones, into the shadows, at the unseen and unsmoked cigarette.
In contrast, Jones stares straight ahead, her head erect, the three-point light making her face pop, with only a brush of shadow on her cheekbones; as she holds her straw, he head tilts slightly back, a surge of emotion running through her as if she's been jolted by something Bill has said. By 1949, she and Selznick will be married. Walker marries Barbara Ford, daughter of film legend John Ford, and divorces her five months later. In 1949, he's committed to a sanitarium. "Of course, I never knew her," Bill says of his mother as he licks his spoon. "She could paint pretty well, china and things...I hope I can show you her work sometime, that is, if Grandpa..."
Two years later, Walker will make a comeback in Strangers On A Train (1951), returning to public consciousness as Bruno, the psychopathic schemer whose oedipal complex is much more sophisticated, much more intense than Bill's insecurities. There are several overlaps with this earlier character: Bruno enters on a train, the same mode of transport that carries Bill out of the film a few scenes after this one; He hates his mother as much as Bill loves the ghost of the mother he never knew; like Bill's mother, Bruno's is an artist, but rather than fine china, she paints intense, almost parodic expressionist portraits; and of course, he longs to see her go away permanently, rather than return to comfort him. Bruno's a smoker, too, and he offers Farley Granger, the object of his affection, a smoke without any hesitation.
Smoke appears constantly in Strangers, bringing to the surface the noir anxieties that Since only hints at, that exist uneasily (but crucially) alongside its homefront platitudes.
In the Hitchcock film, a cigarette lighter becomes a key motif, a symbol of love, hatred, murder, blackmail and betrayal, and a central object of the film's climax. In Since You Went Away, the cigarette is never smoked.
Bill mentions West Point, which leads Jane to excitedly repeat the words, "West POINT!" Bill looks down chagrined, unable to continue. Jane asks if he'd rather continue this conversation at her home, on the front porch swing. He seems very relieved, and readily agrees to the new plan. They stand to leave, and Walker times his movements to appear deliberately awkward, to let Jones stand and then move out of the booth-- he pauses, juts a bit left, moves, pauses, moves. He's as nervous as Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall. Framed again in long shot, the figures move to the left, out of a frame whose visual jangle makes them almost extraneous: the mural, the detail of the counter, that table to the left caught up in conversation, makes the shot (as with so many in this film) a fascinating blend of the archly composed and the quasi-documentarian. If Jean-Luc Godard was right that "every film is a documentary of its actors. It records them at a particular point in their lives for posterity and for eternity," then this is a lost still from A Day On The Set (Scenes From A Marriage), and its naturalness amidst all of the set design and narrative emotion is riveting.
Strangers On A Train revitalized Walker's career, and there was one more parental struggle in his future: the brilliantly unstable anti-Communist film My Son John (1952), where he plays the title character-- a charming, gentle mama's boy who is secretly a Soviet agent. The film draws on Walker's talent for sensitive underplaying and blends that with Bruno's menace and duplicity, as if Bill had not been killed in combat, but became a double agent after the war. That blend was not just thematic-- Walker died during the filming of My Son John, when a sedative proscribed by a doctor interacted badly with his drinking and stopped his breathing. Producers were forced to cut in unused footage of Walker from the Hitchcock picture (with the soundtrack removed) in order to complete some of the remaining scenes. In My Son John's final scene, Walker is literally disembodied, as his voice plays over a school auditorium speaker, renouncing his communist work and encouraging American students to take up the fight against America's enemies.
That's nearly a decade in the future, but it is departure that most fascinates me in this scene from Since You Went Away. Speed ahead to 1:57:51 in the video above, and watch the way Walker comes and goes out of the scene: Bill has forgotten the check, and comes back to grab it; he's forgotten to tip, and comes back to put a coin on the table; most importantly, he's forgotten his cap and his cigarettes, that absent presence that precipitated his whole confession, and he comes back to swipe them away. The music's staircase litany of up-and-down notes highlights Bill's goofy forgetfulness, but that's not how Robert Walker plays it. Absent any chagrined facial expressions or "aw shucks" bodily signals (like a shrugged shoulder or exasperated hand in the air), this coming-and-going feels more like a found moment, an outtake ("Robert, you forgot your hat!") that made it into the film; it extends the real of the initial departure into the banality of repetition, of the unmarked gesture, of the beautifully ordinary. Alluding to his time at West Point, a nervous Bill tells Jane, "There's no one I'd rather explain-- well, there's no one I'd rather tell---" He never finishes that sentence, but the distinction hangs in the air, and informs everything that follows. Andre Bazin, writing a year after Since You Went Away's release, will describe the photographic image as "a hallucination that is also a fact," and that gets at this gesture's effect, and why it haunts me: the repetition breaks down the attempts of the story and the music to explain Walker's movements, and leaves only the movement itself, shown. The cigarette remains unsmoked.