Short Story Films Are Good Stuff
Agatha Christie's Blood-Curdler
From IRIS CONLAY, Catholic Herald Film Critic.
Do short stories make good films? Text for this week's cinema section.
Inspired by Fear, Stefan Zweig's longshort story, and by Love From a Stranger, Agatha Christie's magazine effort, which found a way on to the screen, via the stage.
1 am inclined to think they do.
Short or Long?
Seeing these two shows gave me to think a great deal more about short stories, how they differ from long stories, and why they apparently make good cinema —even better cinema than their longer relations.
It has never seemed to me that a short story was short because its author didn't manage to spin out his yarn into enough words to fill the covers of a traditional seven and sixpenny-worth. And even if he had written enough to fulfil the publisher's demands of a full-length novel, mere hulk would not change its nature. The Lake. by George Moore, is an example of a true short story whose length exceeds that of a modern novel.
A short story is planned as such and remains so, however long it is. This may sound senseless, but is conceived of a theory that can he applied practically. It has its origins in the idea that a novel is concerned with development. and a short story is concerned with mood.
A novel will deal with characters in varying circumstances, who change and grow up and show their various-sidedness as life; uses them. A short story's method is to deal with character in a single mood, work to the climax of that mood, and then drop away. Development and change is not in the nature of the short story, its effect is achieved through dramatic crystallisation, elimination of everything that does not bear directly upon the present problem, the creation of types.
The cinema is a superb medium for dramatic crystallisation, for a one-mood presentation, for the creation of type
characters. There is too little opportunity in a 90-minute show to develop a character; to see him live through all the circumstances that will show him up a figure of endless-sidedness. One side at a time is enough for the film.
Fit for the Deed
So when the producers decided to make films of Fear and Love From a Stranger they had material perfectly planned for their purpose, and in both cases they used it well—but not too well.
Of the two (and in classing them together I do not draw any further analogy than that of their origins) I found the British production of Love From a Stranger (London Pavilion) the more satisfying mentally and entertainingly than the French production of Fear. (Curzon, Tues., 19).
Agatha Christie curdles my blood faster than any thriller writer alive, and she froze me stiff with her experiments in dark cellars to Turkish Patrol music, and her sadistic villain who smiled and smiled . . .
Another member of the audience was even more moved than I, judging by the scream that she let forth at a crucial moment in the plot. It was the best testament any film company could hope for.
An English Triumph
The whole task of this production was to create a tension in the minds of the audience, and by slow degrees to turn the screw until tension is tightened into one superb scene between Basil Rathbone and Ann Harding, terrific in its restraint and understatement. The last reels are sonic of the best stuff the English studios have ever given us, and for those .1 would have waited through hours of tedious introduction.
As it is, the introduction of Love From a Stranger is weak. By the end we are compensated for the meanderings of the heroine around her flat. We arc compensated, too, for that horror of a drooping brimmed hat for which no winning lottery ticket was adequate excuse. And again, we are even compensated for more meanderings in Paris and back in London after several months—in the same awful hat . . It was a pity about that beginning.
Fear, the story of a woman whose attachment (mild and flirtatious) with a musician causes her to be terrified of her husband's possible suspicion to such an extent that she is driven to any desperation to prevent his discovery, has the same fault of slow working up. Stefan Zweig himself knew better than to begin at the beginning of the story, and in his written version the reader is invited to step right in.
The film version dallies for hundreds of feet with the meeting between Gaby Morley and Georges Rigaud and its accompanying pleasantries. Once it gets going, it is sensitively recordant of every reaction of the unfortunate and cowardly wife, and the kind but utterly unrealisingly cruel husband. But oh!, the long approach!
Bergner the Second
Gaby Morlay, the heroine of Fear, is an interesting actress — a Bergner the
Second. In Paris she plays leads in all Henri Bernstein's famous plays, and at the moment she is preparing to interpret the title-role of Laurence Housman's Victoria Regina. She, it was, who created the famous Dreaming Lips part which Bergner afterwards played in Germany and is now re-making in England. It is a long step for Gaby from Dreaming Lips to Victoria Regina, but we shall watch the progression with interest—Gaby is worth while.