|Rosa and the saw mill: "If I don't get out of here I'll die."|
"There's only one person in this town who does anyone a real favor. That's the undertaker -- carries them out." -- Rosa Moline.
"No more dead cat for me! Mink!" -- ditto.
NOTE: Some plot points are given away in this review. Based on a novel by Stuart Engstrand, this vivid melodrama, a kind of poor man's Madame Bovary, has always polarized Davis fans and general movie-goers alike. Davis plays Rosa Moline, a self-absorbed, aging woman in the small town of Loyalton, Wisconsin, which has one industry -- a sawmill constantly issuing smoke and stench -- and one doctor, Rosa's gentle husband, Louis (Joseph Cotten). Bored Rosa, who wants much more out of life than Louis can give her, is having an affair with wealthy businessman Neil Latimer (David Brian of The Damned Don't Cry). Things run hot and cold with Rosa and Latimer for some time, but just when things look perfect Rosa is confronted by Latimer's caretaker, Moose (Minor Watson), who threatens to divulge information to his boss that will utterly ruin things for Rosa. Before she knows it, Rosa is put on trial for murder ...
Hardly anybody, including me, likes Beyond the Forest the first time they see it, perhaps because Davis and the movie seem overblown and slightly grotesque, but the damn thing grows on you and actually has quite a bit going for it. First there's Vidor's direction, which makes the most of Rosa's claustrophobia and frustration, and pulls the viewer along from the very first moment until the highly dramatic climax. Davis has been criticized for supposedly playing a teenager when she was in her forties, but nowhere is it said in the film that Rosa is that young, and one can't assume she is just because the character was younger in the novel. [The characters in the novel "The Postman Always Rings Twice" may have been teenagers or at least very young, but no one has suggested that Turner and Garfield were playing teens in the movie.] Davis comes off like the middle-aged woman whose opportunities are running out just as time is, and who does her best to look and act much younger, and her performance, despite some odd moments perhaps, is vital and effective. Robert Burks' photography makes the most of the bucolic locations and grim situations. Max Steiner's snappy and attractive score was nominated for an Oscar.
Rosa's dilemma is that she fancies herself a non-conformist, different from and superior to the other townspeople, but she hasn't the gifts that would enable her to get away without latching on to some man. The odd thing about Beyond the Forest is that while it's hard to like Rosa, you can't help but find yourself sympathizing with this somewhat sociopathic female who just has to get to Chicago or die [and this has much to do with Davis' performance]. The ending, in which a feverish, dying Rosa literally drags herself inch by inch and step by step to the train station, is not only operatic, but extremely well-handled by Vidor, superbly acted by Davis, and whatever else you think of the film, is just plain good movie-making. The stylized scene when Rosa gets lost in the big city and encounters weird characters is a bit problematic, but sort of works anyway.
Joseph Cotten (Shadow of a Doubt) perhaps makes Louis even more placid than he needs to be. [Some people writing about this movie don't seem to get that it doesn't matter if Louis is "nice" and "pleasant" and forgiving and so on. To Rosa his placidity is deadly.] Dona Drake (Valentino) is excellent as the Native American maid who is so mistreated by Rosa but gives as good as she gets. Minor Watson, a fine actor, played a very different role from Moose, a studio executive, in his next film with Davis, The Star, and is equally convincing in both pictures. Ruth Roman (Invitation) is lovely as Moose's daughter; Davis has a fine moment putting on Roman's mink and looking at herself in the mirror. David Brian is probably the weakest of the cast members, but he's perfectly competent as the rugged Latimer, who's used to getting what he wants, including Rosa. The ubiquitous Ann Doran is one of Loyalton's disapproving [of Rosa] housewives.
Verdict: Love it or hate it, it plays. ***.