Thursday 23 May 2024

The Deep Blue Sea (Anatole Litvak, 1955)

Italian poster for The Deep Blue Sea

The Deep Blue Sea plays as part of the Anatole Litvak retrospective at Il Cinema Ritrovato, on June 28, 2024. The note below from the the festival catalogue. – EK


This rarest of all Anatole Litvak films is about Hester, a middle-aged woman whose suicide attempt at the beginning of the story sparks off two flashbacks, one from the point of view of the upper-class husband she has abandoned and the other from the view of the younger, capricious ex-RAF pilot for whom she has left her husband. Back to the present, the film revolves around her desperate attempt to win back her lover, only to realise she is yearning for something she can’t have.

After a deal was struck between producer Alexander Korda and Fox, The Deep Blue Sea was adapted from a famous play of the same name by Terence Rattigan who also wrote the script under Litvak’s supervision. More static than usual for a Litvak film, he overcomes the limitation of his first attempt at CinemaScope (a first for British cinema too) by being creative with the chamber drama, splitting the screen into equal parts using doors and other verticals, for example. He conveys a stifling world of failed dreams (a doctor who has turned bookie, a jobless and meddlesome actress) with an emotional impact somehow stronger than Terence Davies’s 2011 version.

When Marlene Dietrich turned down the role of Hester, Vivien Leigh, who hadn’t appeared in a film since 1951 but had a long friendship with Litvak dating back to the late 1930s, was selected. Everyone said Leigh was too beautiful for the role of a woman who was intended to be unattractive, but she turned out to be convincing as her own increasingly problematic mental illness resonated through the character she portrayed. Kenneth More, as the lover and the only actor from the original London production of the play, proved more popular and won the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival.

Litvak shows unconstrained impulses without making them look pathetic. There's no malice of intent in the way characters hurt each other but things always fall in the wrong places. When hope wanes, the dust of memories obscures it beyond recognition. There’s a profound sadness to the sense of love ebbing away, scene after scene. Litvak’s treatment is artful.

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