The story focuses on Larry Darrell (Power), who has physically survived the First World War, but is tormented by the death of a friend, who died saving Larry's life on the eve of the armistice. Why, Larry wonders, should he live, when this man is dead, and what can he do with his life to make up for that death? Larry's fiance, Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney) is sympathetic, and agrees that Larry should travel for a while, to try and find the answers to his questions. But when, a year later, Larry is still determined to continue his quest, Isabel balks - she is not willing to live as an itinerant, with a husband who has no ambitions to anything but the life of a nomad. So, they separate, only to be reunited years later, when both their lives - and the lives of their friends and relatives - have drastically changed.
This is a complex film, following the lives of a number of central characters over a period of nearly 15 years, all of whom are in some way related to Larry and Isabel. The characters are real - with faults and flaws. We admire Larry, but would find him impossible to live with. We sympathize with Isabel, but gasp at her machinations. It's a film of greys - there are almost no black and whites.
Elliot Templeton (Clifton Webb) is a prime example of a "grey" character. Wealthy, selfish, and somewhat arrogant, Elliot is also generous and intrinsically good. Late in the film, a priest characterizes Elliot as "a good man. His defects were on the surface, but he was generous of heart ...and kindly toward his fellow creatures." That he is basically good is reflected in the fact that our narrator, Maugham (Herbert Marshall), actually likes Elliot (also calling him "kind and generous"), even though he feels that Elliot " has no friends, only acquaintances." Elliot's wealth has allowed him to live his life in Europe, hobnobbing with the wealthy and noble, and to look with aghast at his much loved sister, Louisa (Lucile Watson), who has chosen to spend her life in the Midwest. But, when his niece and nephew-in-law lose all their money in the Stock Market crash, it is Elliot who takes them in, and supports them and their children til they can get on their feet. Webb paints a picture of a man whom you like in spite of yourself; he allows us to the see the inner Elliot.
Anne Baxter won her Academy Award for playing Sophie MacDonald, a loving wife and mother whose life is turned upside down after an automobile accident. Other actresses were considered for the part (Susan Hayward, Betty Grable, Judy Garland, Anabel Shaw, Nancy Guild, and Bonita Granville, according to Ms. Baxter), but it is hard to imagine anyone else doing it. The character of Sophie floats in and out of the story, as she does in the lives of the characters. Sophie's alcoholism becomes a major focus of the film, and it is Baxter's seering portrait of Sophie's problem that more than likely cinched the award for her. While we sympathize with Sophie, Baxter is careful to make her unappealing in the latter half of the film - again, she is painted in grey tones. And her alcoholism is not something that just appears because of the accident - early on, Sophie tells us that her husband Bob (Frank Latimore) doesn't like her to drink because of what it does to her. Of course, Joseph Breen tried to get the alcoholism eliminated from the film - Darrel Zanuck refused to take it out, as essential to the story (for more on this and other casting issues see these AFI notes.)
Gene Tierney was not the first choice for Isabel. Both Fontaine and Olivia de Haviland were considered, as was Maureen O'Hara. In her autobiography, 'Tis Herself, Ms O'Hara recalls that the deal was all but completed. There was one proviso, however: producer Darrell Zanuck told her to keep quiet about her casting. She didn't - she told her friend Linda Darnell - who was in a relationship with Zanuck at that point, unbeknownst to Ms. O'Hara - and Zanuck fired her later that day for blabbing. Regardless of the fact she was not the first choice, Ms. Tierney shines (she was nominated for an Oscar - losing to Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce) as Isabel, and creates a character of dimension and layers. As hideous as some of her actions are, even narrator Maugham cannot dislike her, nor in a sense can we do more than shake our heads at her selfishness. According to this TCM article, Tyrone Power (newly back from his service in World War II), developed on crush on her. She privately let him know that, though divorced from Oleg Cassini, she was seeing someone else - future president John Kennedy. Though Tierney loved JFK deeply, it was not too be. Kennedy was already looking towards his future in politics, and men married to divorcees just didn't get to be president in the 1940s.
Gray Maturin (John Payne) is the man who has loved Isabel for years, and who ends up married to her when Isabel is unwilling to wait for Larry. It's interesting that his name is "Gray", because he is perhaps the only non-gray character in the film. Gray is the only really "good" person we meet. He loves Isabel unquestioningly and he likes Larry, even though Larry is the competition. It is Gray who has to interact with Sophie on the most critical day of her life - Payne gives us a man who is caring, but unable to do more than just sympathize. Payne works hard to make Gray a complex, but not weak character; he mostly succeeds, as we like Gray and understand how deeply honorable he is.
One other character of note is that of Miss Keith (played by Elsa Lanchester). As the private secretary of the Princess Novemali, the part is tiny - at one point, we see her in the background of the action, but finally get to meet her at the film's end. Like Gray, she is someone who is deeply good. Though Lanchester only has this one brief scene with Tyrone Power, you will remember her. Her Miss Keith is a woman of integrity in a world of mere surface.
In the discussion prior to the film, Robert Osborne cited one scene in the film that he thought one of the most beautiful on film. You can see it below, as Isabel tries to seduce Larry, to keep him from going away again. A magnificent setting, and two of filmdom's most attractive people - this scene does shine.
We'll be returning to more films from the festival in coming weeks (along with our regular conversations).