#910. There's Always Tomorrow (1956, Douglas Sirk)

Screened Wednesday February 21 2007 on VHS in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #368 IMDb

My first instinct in evaluating this film is of course as a Douglas Sirk movie. Imitation of Life (TSPDT#244) is one of my all-time favorites, though my overall opinion of Sirk hasn't had as much unqualified enthusiasm. But as the film progressed, I took more interest in the fact that this was a reuniting of the stars of Double Indemity (TSPDT #108).

Wilder's thick-lined characterizations risk drawing everyone in the film as a Dick Tracy cartoon -- MacMurray is a stiff-necked jerk who tells bad jokes and tries too hard to be cool; he has no right to earn our sympathies and yet his lower middlebrow tackiness is endearing, perhaps because we identify more than a little with it; he's us trying to act like a movie star and not quite succeeding. Or perhaps because his excessively explicit voiceover narration insists on crowding our headspace with his, like Robinson's "little man." Barbara Stanwyck, on the other hand, is movie star to the nth degree -- she takes a rather thin femme fatale character and makes an Art Deco statue out of it -- even in as plain jane a setting as a suburban supermarket, she has a way of looking down at you even when she looks up at you.

from my review of Double Indemnity

I wanted to reference this review to compare it with the duo's acting in There's Always Tomorrow - take for instance their first meeting: [youtube]_44xTTfFLMY[/youtube]

Wilder's movie is fine for its expressively iconic overstatement, but it's miles away from the subtlety on display here. MacMurray has taken his limited expressive capabilities, that hollow grin that he perpetually wears, and has turned them into the polite expressions of quiet desperation. Stanwyck, a self-made woman revisiting an old flame, possesses a tremendous warmth her past incarnation as a femme fatale would never have suggested. And yet she still has that kind of statuelike dominance to her demeanor -- and yet there are slight hints of vulnerability, which will become more apparent as their affair unfolds. They wear the outward appearances of contentment within convention, but through a split-second pause in their lines or a brief distant look into a vacant distance (look at what MacMurray does with his eyes at the end) they convey an inner world of desolation.

. Though Sirk is popularly perceived as a ironic camp subverter of the histrionic conventions of Hollywood melodrama, There's Always Tomorrow, like his earlier All That Heaven Allows (TSPDT #245), is graced with remarkably understated performances at its center. Again, comparing with Double Indemnity, one can see an inverse equation of mise-en-scene at work. Wilder pits iconic characters within starkly banal backdrops (i.e. Stanwyck with those uberbitch shades standing in a supermarket) as a way to key into these characters' anti-social arrogance. In Sirk's film it's the opposite -- look at how vast and overdecorated this house is, how these characters move within it, how they draw closer then further as they navigate their way from one room to another, how the lighting cloaks them in private introspection then reveals them in public presentation in a matter of seconds. Here it's the environment that's in control, and all this unhappy couple can do is put their best face on and smile through.

It's also worth noting how Stanwyck helps MacMurray take off his apron -- the matriarchal role that his family has relegated him to due to their self-centeredness and demands. Everyone in this movie is like a vessel seething with desire, and the ones who are loudest about expressing what they want are the ones in control, while more ingratiating types like MacMurray get stuck with their dreams deferred. As a function of everyone being driven by their own desire, everyone gets objectified by everyone else within narrow roles of parent, child, sibling - and anything that can't be categorized - like Stanwyck - is a threat.

Of all these roles, the one that is most prominently showcased is that of MacMurray's father, Clifford. It's remarkably refreshing how this film transposes the stereotypically feminine attributes of masochistic melodrama upon a patriarchal figure, one that (in a reversal of gender associations) becomes objectified as everyone else's object of desire. Clifford's wife seems content to let him go about his own business outside the home as breadwinner and leave her to tend to the kids -- don't most wives dwell in jealous insecurity when their husbands are out all the time? The kids, especially Clifford's son, are let down if he does anything that may remotely compromise his perfect dad status -- isn't it usually the parents who are let down by their kids' misconduct? But the cruellest blow of all is when Stanwyck's Norma Vale ultimately rejects him, convinced as she is of the imperative for him to uphold his role within his family, just as she is convinced that such a life could never be hers. Perversely she loves him because he represents everything she cannot have, and thus for the very reasons that she cannot have him. Driven by the projections of her own insecurities, she can't see him any other way and ends up objectifying him as much as everyone else. Their entire love affair has been proven false, a gradual thawing of personal desires, but no true ability to perceive the other. In the end they fail to see beyond their own solipsistic needs.

However, Sirk doesn't necessarily portray Cliff's family unsympathetically. Joan Bennett as Cliff's wife is completely oblivious of her husband's needs, but Bennett plays her with a workaholic dignity that is as respectable in its middle-class ethos as it is chillingly ignorant of anything outside its domestic worldview. Cliff's son Vinnie, played by William Reynolds as a minor riff on the brooding James Dean iconoclast, is his father's primary antagonist in trying to unearth the secret of his relationship with Norma. But who can blame him? His most compelling moment comes when, confronting Norma, he shudders that he found his father and her talking "so intimate." In other words, it's an intimacy he's never witnessed between his own parents, and that's what rips his world and his childhood assumptions of love and family from under him. And as my girlfriend pointed out, his bickering with his own girlfriend about his father's suspected infidelity forms a parallel narrative to Cliff and Norma's. Ironically, it is Norma who gives him a much-needed maternal scolding that purges him of his insecurities and allows him to embrace his own ideals of love more firmly, even as she consigns his father to a life of romantic unfulfillment.

. Such a bitterly ironic twist, typical of Sirk, is what keeps the film tonally off-balance like so many other Sirk films. He can go from being blatantly didactic to subliminally understated within the same moment. Barbara Stanwyck's lecture to Cliff's kids, to treat their father more lovingly, feels like a telegraphed moral, and judging from the original New York Times review by Bosley "subtext? what's that?" Crowther, was what audiences at the time focused on. Scenes like that make the movie itself feel like a veneer of moral and aesthetic convention, yet another way of reflecting the society depicted onscreen, and against which Sirk is fighting to find genuine conflict and feeling.\

. There's no question that the ending - one of the most bitter Hollywood happy endings of all time, is meant to stick as a subversive lump in the throat. But it's not like he's trying to score points at these people's expense. As his treatment of the Cliff character bears out, he does care for them too much to treat them sardonically as object lessons in middle-class hypocrisy and compromise. Well, sometimes. Other times it feels like he just can't resist thumbing his nose at the bratty kids and domestic pettiness on display. To watch these films is like standing with each foot on a separate pontoon while floating down a river, it's never stable. Which I suppose is true to how many of us see society, when we're thoroughly unresolved about our place within it.

One thing that certainly is not in dispute is the film's visual richness, and in many ways it does the most to anchor the film's fluctuating tonal approaches to scenes upon a bedrock of light and shadow:

"The film's lighting, design and camerawork brilliantly support Sirk's overarching thesis. Although the hearth of the fire in the Groves' home is always lit, and every detail of décor reinforces it as a “normal”, upwardly mobile suburban residence, it is crowded with shadows, cramped spaces, frames within frames, panes of glass and mirrors, and clusterings of furniture that suggest both the family circle and the separation of bodies into slightly compartmentalised spaces. This interior space is vast enough to allow characters to move relatively freely through it – and for the routinely despicable children to both escape from and spy on their father – but not so much so that these characters can't also constantly impose their dominating and censoring presence vocally or sonically throughout the house (it is this, amongst many other things, that reinforces the sense of Cliff's ultimate entombment)."

From Adrian Danks' review for Senses of Cinema


Michael Walker, quoted on this Russell Metty tribute page, goes so far as to suggest that Metty's contribution is what distinguishes the film's visual depth, even from other Sirk films. He does this by comparing the visual sense in There's Always Tomrrow with that of an earlier Sirk film, All I Desire:

"The difference between 'All I Desire' [1952-53] and 'There's Always Tomorrow' [1955] in terms of mise-en-scène is not the compositions - Sirk's visual sense is equally stunning in both movies - but the lighting. Whereas Carl Guthrie in 'All I Desire' executes Sirk's shots faultlessly, Metty in 'There's Always Tomorrow' transforms them, with his nuances of lighting, into dazzling examples of a cameraman's art."

Douglas Sirk biography on Senses of Cinema Great Directors site