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Laughter and Silence

I watched John M. Stahl’s Back Street (1932) the other day. It’s a truly great film, gorgeous and heartbreaking, assuredly one of the finest melodramas ever made. It’s my first Stahl film, and one of my first impressions of him is that he’s a remarkably understated filmmaker. It’s a film whose big moments are expressed almost entirely through small gesture and close observation. I worry I make this comparison too lightly sometimes, but I really was reminded of Mizoguchi at points. This makes him in many ways a more difficult filmmaker to write about then, say, Sirk or Minnelli, directors of big gestures and brash images; Back Street works in such a subtle and quiet way that it feels almost obscene to inflict the crudity of language on it. But I’m a crude man, and words are what I know, so nonetheless I’d like to devote a few to one of these small gestures, perhaps the most important one in the whole film, and how it’s shaped by what surrounds it.

The situation, essentially, is that Ray’s (Irene Dunne) lover is married, but not to her. She’s just asked him for a child anyway, because she has little in the way of a life when he’s not with her, whiling her time away alone in the small apartment he provides for her, and he’s with her too little, too little by far, and they are in love, after all. He’s told her it’s impossible, unthinkable – “after all, you’re not my wife.” He sees the look on her face and in an instant apologizes. He didn’t mean to say it, but now it’s been said, and they both know its truth. A minute later he leaves, and for a moment the camera lingers on him in the hallway outside, his back to the camera, unreadable. Then we cut back to her, sitting on the couch, and for the first time you can just how young and carefree she no longer is. Irene Dunne’s expression, her performance, as infinite and subtle in this moment as the shadow of a cloud passing over a fresh grave, are what make the scene, of course, but it’s just as true that the scene could not be made without Stahl’s decision to shoot it wordlessly, unaccompanied, in a silence which is not the “silence” of silent cinema, but the real silence of being suddenly alone in a place that a moment before had seemed full of life, and now is so empty as to be unbearable. It’s this silence that makes her ball her hands into fists and knock them together, so quietly they can barely be heard, that makes her look emptily from place to place, that finally pulls from her a small, bitter laugh as she drifts from couch to window. This laugh must be among the most tragic in all of cinema, containing in its brief sonic flicker an expression of such total, tragic understanding one can scarcely bear to hear it.

A knock at the door finally releases her, as it must, lest the film combust in the projector – but it is a temporary release. She goes away with the man who knocks, a man who is kind, rich, eligible, and in love with her, a man she really does care for. She becomes engaged to him. A good life, good in spirit and good in social standing, it seems, will finally be hers. But her lover follows her, and asks her to take him back. He makes no new promises, gives her no new expectations. Nothing that would give her reason to accept. We wait for her answer… and then there is an ellipse in the narrative, a fade to 20 years later, and it is this absence which completes the agonizing presence of that silence in that lonely apartment. Because she doesn’t marry the kind man. She takes back her lover, and grows old as his mistress – and this passes unseen, because there was never another course, never a decision that could be made. That we understand this is the miracle of the film, that through silence and absence it communicates to us matters of the heart so all-consuming they burn through the very fabric of thought. Without an impassioned declaration, a swell of music, without the need of any of the many reliable tools of the melodramatic arts, we are able to understand, because we already understood from Ray’s laugh, a truly Nietzschean laugh, and from the silence that surrounded it.

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