I was spurred into re-watching this classic movie by the attention and detail given to it in Paul Auster’s Sunset Park. One of the characters uses the film as a major part of the dissertation she is working on, and she talks about the movie with nearly everyone, asks their opinions. Have they seen it? They invariable have. What did they think of it?
The story of servicemen returning to the realities of civilian life after the conflicts of war are all too familiar now. Three servicemen are being discharged and fall in with each other by accident. They end up in the same town (how did that happen?) and meet up again at Butch’s Bar. Butch is played by Hoagy Carmichael, one of the great songwriters. They all had been anxious to delay their return, not knowing how to handle the things they would be facing once they got back home. Never mind. Their old way of life has long since been replaced by the new realities. On the cab ride home they make tentative plans to meet up again, and somehow they all end up that same night at Butch’s. As a movie of “return”, it was probably groundbreaking at the time, but we’ve since seen harder hitting films, more violent, more visceral, more raw.
Homer (Harold Russell), as we all know has had both of his hands burned off during the war, and is unsure of how his fiance will react. It turns out that she (Wilma, played by Cathy O’Donnell) reacts better than almost anyone else. Homer can’t get past the fact that everyone seems to want to help him do the things he used to do for himself and wants to demonstrate that he still can do those things. Frederick March’s Al Stephenson takes up rightwhere he left off in the bank, with his boss cynically using his ‘experience’ as a tool of commerce. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) returns to his playboy, loose and fancy life-style, but soon sees the shallowness of his ways. Virginia Mayo’s Marie Derry throws him over because he’s not as much fun as he used to be, but he’s finds himself better off with the good-hearted Peggy (Teresa Wright). Teresa is the daughter of Al and Milly Stephenson (Myrna Loy). Myrna Loy is a delight.
There are predictable shades of the oncoming Cold War, and the fear of getting blown to bits. Yet, there are some breathtakingmoments in the film as when Fred tears a photo in half to dispose of the girlfriend. Then tears up the other half: himself. And everything about the scene of Dana Andrews’ character walking around in a field of moth-balled bombers, and then sitting in the gunner bay is absolutely perfect.The lighting, the camera angles. Wow.
The Harold Russell story is inspiring, but he’s no actor – and it shows. But (other than that) what a cast. The film can seem somewhat dated in parts, but much of it holds up remarkably well. If you haven’t seen the film in awhile – or have never seen it – giveit a look.