Remember the Night

Remember the Night ★★★★★

*MINOR SPOILERS*

I watched this on the big screen for the first time last night. It’s still the greatest movie I’ve seen: a witty, knockabout Preston Sturges comedy (his last script before becoming a director) that slips gently into an extraordinarily powerful articulation of romantic love: romantic love as both the saviour of and ultimate threat to family, career and existence itself.

Fred MacMurray is an assistant D.A. brought in to win a case against shoplifter Barbara Stanwyck. After forcing her case to be postponed till after the festive season (leaving her in the clink over Christmas), he has an attack of conscience and gets her bailed out, and soon they’re travelling to their home state of Indiana together, as their frosty relationship begins to thaw.

Combining Sturges’ comic smarts and sly sentimentalism with the lushness of director Mitchell Leisen’s visual vision, it’s a heady concoction in which the imagery – a Gothic, lamplit house; shooting through streamers at a New Year barn-dance; silhouettes against Niagara Falls – perfectly complements the action, in which each of the supporting players (Beulah Bondi, Elizabeth Patterson, Sterling Holloway) has one truly great scene with which to comprehensively nail their character, and in which Stanwyck exhibits the most refined strain of that incandescent, beguiling sensitivity that for a short time made her the most important actor on the American screen.

Incredibly, MacMurray matches her every step of the way, the pair generating an intense chemistry of which most screen couples can barely dream – no wonder they were re-teamed for Double Indemnity, many film fans’ contender for the title of Best Noir Ever Made (I’m more of an Out of the Past man, myself).

Every time I watch it, I find something new to make me laugh or cry. Here it was MacMurray’s petulant cry of “Those jurors are gabbing again” (laugh), as he takes an unusual approach to the climactic court case. And then there are all the elements that reward time and again: former lawyer Willard Robertson as a ridiculously OTT defense attorney; Stanwyck and MacMurray’s meeting in the apartment, her very genuine sardonism put to great use; the running gag about her defence of ‘hypnosis’; her heartstopping “You bet”, when he tells her he’s a lucky man to have the family he does, huh; the musical interlude in the parlour; Patterson’s line about her engagement; the moment when it dawns on you that Sturges is preaching on the malleability of human behaviour, one of my pet themes; and the night-time chat between Bondi and Stanwyck – a raw, captivating, unusually mature and effortlessly judged piece of cinema. And then there is the denouement, a Niagara Falls/courtroom one-two that sees Sturges take every duplicitous restriction of the Hays Code and work it in his favour, as only he could.

There’s a black valet who’s a bit thick, a running joke about Sterling Holloway yodelling and an oft-maligned hair bow for Stanwyck, and you’re welcome to sneer, smirk or raise alarm at them all you want, but - for me - everything that happened in cinema up to Remember the Night was just a rehearsal, and nothing that’s happened since has been half as good.

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