NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART - DVD review

...quite a change of pace for romantic leading man Cary Grant.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

Cary Grant had a long career in movies, from 1932 to 1969, most of it spent as a leading man in lightweight romantic comedies, drawing-room comedies, screwball comedies, and breezy, romantic action and adventure films. You remember the titles, most of them classics: "She Done Him Wrong," "Topper," Bringing Up Baby," "Gunga Din," "His Girl Friday," "The Philadelphia Story," "Mr. Lucky," "Arsenic and Old Lace," "Night and Day," "The Bishop's Wife," "To Catch a Thief," "North By Northwest," "Operation Petticoat," "Charade," "Walk Don't Run," among many others.

But there were those few occasions when Grant strayed into something approaching serious drama: "Suspicion," "Destination Tokyo," "Notorious," "The Pride and the Passion," and, most important, the movie under consideration here, "None But the Lonely Heart." The thing that sets the latter film apart is that in it Grant is no hero, nor even a suspected villain. He's an ordinary fellow, down on his luck, scrounging for a living, a happy-go-lucky drifter, but mainly an average guy. This is probably the most unusual film Grant ever made, a serious departure for him, and something that earned him an Academy nomination for Best Actor. It was also something he never tried again, more's the pity.

The noted American playwright and screenwriter Clifford Odets ("Waiting for Lefty," "Golden Boy," "The Big Knife," "The Country Girl," "Sweet Smell of Success," "Wild in the Country") wrote and directed "None But the Lonely Heart," basing his screenplay on a novel by Richard Llewellyn, the film opening in 1944. Although critics generally liked the picture and the Academy nominated it for four Oscars (Best Actor, Best Editing, Best Music, and Best Actress, won by Ethel Barrymore), audiences remained indifferent (some fans becoming downright hostile toward it), and rabid anti-Communists of the day denounced it as yet another of Odets's typically pro-Communist manifestos. Today, the criticisms seem like so much nonsense. "None But the Lonely Heart" is a fine, moody slice of life with a thoughtful if chancy theme at its center. If it's also long, stagey, and often tedious, blame Odets for cutting off more than he could chew (or maybe not biting off enough, as we'll see).

Grant stars as Ernie Mott, a thirty-five-year-old Cockney knocking about England at the end of the Great Depression and just before Europe's entrance into World War II. He's a man who cherishes his freedom, who refuses to be tied down to a conventional job or conventional moral standards. He's a good man but always living just barely inside the law. If he has a fault, it's that he's also a generous man who believes in helping, not living off of, his fellow man. As the film's narrator puts it, he's an "unknown warrior of a second world war...who searched for a free, a beautiful, a noble life in the second quarter of the twentieth century." Or, as Mott himself puts it, he's "not in the business of sweating pennies out of devils poorer than me-self." Yes, one can detect a certain socialist agenda here, but it's hardly worth mentioning.

Mott left home and his mother (Ethel Barrymore) long ago for the freedom of the open road. He also left a girl behind, Aggie Hunter (Jane Wyatt), a patient, long-suffering young woman who lives across the street from the mother, a young woman who makes a humble living teaching music and occasionally performing, and who remains forever loyal to her man. She is, indeed, too good to be true.

Then there's the mother. She is a tough old bird who owns a tiny furniture store in London's East End. She loves her son dearly and wants nothing more than for him to settle down, but she knows it's not his way. What's a poor, dear mum to do? She gives him an ultimatum: Either he comes back for good or he never comes back at all. Ernie remains undecided until he learns that his mother is dying of cancer and hasn't long to live. Which puts him in a dilemma. He must be free, but he must also care for his mum in her final days. So, reluctantly, after returning home for what he thought would be a casual handout, he decides to stay on.

Among the film's other characters are Henry Twite (Barry Fitzgerald), an old peddler friend and confidant of Mott; Ada Brantline (June Duprez), a young woman who works in a local arcade and for whom Mott falls in love when he gets back home; and Jim Mordinoy (George Coulouris), a shady nightclub owner and boss of a gang of thieves.

Here's the thing: Odetts was first and foremost a playwright, and it shows. In the second phase of his career Odetts turned to writing screenplays and directing two films--this one in 1944 and "The Story on Page One" in 1959. But it didn't look as though he had his heart it. "None But the Lonely Heart" is mostly about characterizations, dialogue, and messages, with little thought to story. As a result, the characterizations are strong, the dialogue theatrical, the plot erratic, and the messages vague, as though either he or Hollywood didn't want to embrace the film fully.

On the plus side, the movie boasts some fine acting by everyone involved, acting that holds a person's attention and gains a person's admiration. It goes without saying that one of the first ladies of the Broadway stage, Ethel Barrymore, would be good, which is why she won an Oscar, but it may surprise people that Grant could also be so good, especially in a role that offered him no chance to be a hero or even very romantic. OK, maybe there is still a little something missing from his portrayal of a poor, largely illiterate down-and-out Londoner, despite Grant's having grown up in just such an environment himself. By 1944, though, he had long before shed that unpolished exterior for the charming, dapper, glamorous leading man we all know so well. Still, he does his best, and the performance persuaded me to believe in his character. Also on the plus side, we get some dark, gritty, atmospheric sets that go a long way toward establishing the film's mood.

On the minus side, as I say, Odett's direction tends to block out long scenes of dialogue, some of it tiresome and redundant, some of it oddly distant or obscure, all of it with dubious literary pretensions. And there are the themes, which Odetts leaves largely to the audience to interpret. Clearly, both Odetts and the novelist Richard Llewellyn were trying to convey some impression of the human condition here, circa 1938. But what condition? Is the final message one of depression? Or did the writers mean for it to be uplifting? It's hard to say for sure, as the movie leaves us with an ambiguous ending, relying on viewers to decide for themselves what it was all about. I have no objections.

Yet with all the episodes of and allusions to crime and hoodlumism and stolen goods and robberies and intimidation, what is one to make of Odetts's vision of life on the underside? Although it all gets rather preachy toward the end and melodramatic as well, the audience still never gets a distinct idea of the movie's unifying moral, just the fuzzy suspicion that a stout, generous heart filled with love can eventually overcome all odds. Or not, since even that is unclear.

Video:
The remastered black-and-white picture can be beautiful one minute and mediocre the next, and that's probably just the way the filmmakers shot it. In a standard 1.37:1 ratio, the image displays a good deal of natural print grain at times, making the picture look fairly rough, and it displays an almost crystalline lucidity at other times, with beautifully strong, rich B&W contrasts. Pick your scene and hope for the best.

Audio:
Dolby Digital 1.0 reproduces the movie's monaural soundtrack about as well as one could expect. The midrange is extremely smooth and easy on the ear, clarifying the East-End cockney dialects nicely. Yet one hears a modicum of background noise on occasion, and, of course, there is a very limited frequency response and dynamic range.

Extras:
As this is a bare-bones affair, we get just that, bare bones. The only "extra" is a well-worn theatrical trailer, and the only available language option is English. There are no subtitles, and there isn't even a scene-selections menu, but you can use your remote to click through a dozen or so chapter stops. Nor is there any timing on the disc, which is a serious drawback for finding your way around. Oh, well.

Parting Thoughts:
"None But the Lonely Heart" was quite a change of pace for romantic leading man Cary Grant, making it worthwhile viewing not only as a snapshot of an age but as a heart-wrenching look at the rougher side of life.

The movie makes its official DVD debut in this version available as a video download or on disc exclusively from Warnerarchive.com (http://bit.ly/WAC_CaryGrant).

Ratings

Video
6
Audio
5
Extras
2
Film Value
7