Thursday, April 26, 2012

Love in the Afternoon

Love in the Afternoon (Billy Wilder, 1957) Light Billy Wilder film from the effervescent days when he was directing Audrey Hepburn at the start of her career.

This one had me smiling immediately with Maurice Chevalier's opening narration—"Zis is the city, Paris France"—echoing Jack Webb's "Dragnet" opening.  Chevalier plays a private detective, Claude Chavasse, specializing in "matrimonial work," and lately the case-work has been dominated by one subject, American millionaire Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper), who is cutting a wide swath through the world's female population, both married and unmarried divisions.  The work has turned Chavasse into a cynic about the paths of love—he's gumshoed too many of them—in marked contrast to his daughter, Ariane (Hepburn), a cello player (hold that image in your head for a moment), still wide-eyed at the prospect of romance, and fascinated with her father's work, something he does his utmost to discourage.

When she gets wind that a cuckolded husband (John McGiver, hyperventilating amusingly in fine comic fashion) plans on breaking in on his wife's tryst to ventilate Flannagan, she steps in from the balcony to insert herself into the situation.  This inevitably (in the movies, at least) to an affair between the elder lothario and the young ingenue, one that she manipulates by trying to talk a competitive game in conquests.  The situation is ripe with comic possibilities, which Wilder exploits every chance he gets, even using Flannagan's moving musical accompaniment (the final assault is preceded by a four piece rendition of "Fascination").

Much has been made of Cooper's age in the film, and it is an issue.   Cary Grant was supposed to be Flannagan (Wilder had been trying to entice Grant into one of his films for years) but when a deal wasn't reached,* Cooper, who at 56 was Grant's senior by three years, was hired.  Cooper is an odd fit, as opposed to younger men like, say, Gregory Peck (as in Roman Holiday) or William Holden (in Sabrina), but Wilder works around it, initially, keeping Coop' in shadow to emphasize his "mystery man" status, and Cooper's early performance is, interestingly, boyish and somewhat immature.

And that's the point.  Flannagan is a man-child, used to getting everything he wants.  And Ariane has her choice between younger men—immature and unsophisticated—and Flannagan—sophisticated but immature.  All it takes for him to grow up is a level of commitment, something he's avoided his whole life by having a train to catch.  Both character arcs feel complete and satisfying, even though it is the "7-10 split" of May-December romances, and one feels a little creepy watching them make out.

And a little guilty, in the same way that it was tough to watch the denouement of Sabrina.  Okay, it's charming that she likes the old guy, but if he really was thinking this through, with all this new-found maturity, wouldn't he be thinking about her, and what she has to look forward to in a life with him (which can be summed up in one word..."short")?

And then, one considers Wilder, and the blithe, darkly cavalier sensibility that he brought to the movies, moral though his stand-point might be.  One can imagine Wilder, the guy who ended Some Like It Hot with "Nobody's perfect," with a similar tag for this movie: "Aren't you concerned about the age difference?"  "If she dies, she dies..."

 At this point, Grant was getting concerned about his age and being paired with young actresses ("robbing the cradle, again" is how James Stewart summarized the situation late in his career), but his misgivings must have subsided enough to co-star with Hepburn in Charade for Stanley Donen six years later.

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