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John M. Stahl

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  • Dan Sallitt
    Saw ONLY YESTERDAY last night - quite a striking film. I can t believe I never noticed before that it s almost exactly the same story as LETTER FROM AN
    Message 1 of 42 , Mar 10, 2005
      Saw ONLY YESTERDAY last night - quite a striking film. I can't believe I
      never noticed before that it's almost exactly the same story as LETTER
      FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN. (With one huge difference...but I'll save it for
      the end, because it's a spoiler.)

      Despite the wonderful Margaret Sullavan, I continue to believe that Stahl
      is not a great director of actors, that he often leaves them alone to do
      actorish things. With some directors that's an insurmountable problem -
      but there's something about Stahl's style that shifts the perspective to
      the back of the room, so that the actors don't control the drama quite as

      The element of Stahl's style that I note most often is this tendency to
      create what I'd call an environmental perspective. In other words, his
      camera stands just far enough back, and his blocking of non-central
      elements in the frame is just conspicuous enough, that the actor who
      dominates the story is shown more as part of the environment and less as a
      privileged being. Those serene, impassive tracking shots that Stahl loves
      are almost always a bit wider than the norm - they are a way to keep part
      of the focus on the world that the characters are moving through. This is
      a matter of emphasis as well as visuals: the background activity often has
      a strong presence, and is sustained across big story events. Sound plays
      a big part in this distribution of emphasis, and Stahl seems to pay a lot
      of attention to it, usually to smooth out transitions instead of to play
      them up.

      This description makes it sound as if Stahl is working against the
      melodrama instead of working with it. But that's a tricky issue, and I
      don't know if I have a handle on it yet. Certainly the films work as
      melodrama, have big emotional scenes. Stahl doesn't shy away from the
      emotions. But I tend to feel his presence in the way that he pulls back
      to a more environmental viewpoint, and not in the way that the melodrama
      convulses the story. Margaret's tearful conversation with her
      ten-year-old son at the film's climax is clearly the "money shot," the
      scene that the audience is supposed to remember, the one that delivers the
      goods. And yet it doesn't feel like the heart of the film from a
      directorial point of view. If I feel that Stahl has a limitation, it lies
      here: that the "official" film and the director's film seem to pull apart
      a little bit, have different high points.

      There's another element of Stahl's style that I haven't discussed yet that
      mitigates this problem. It's the "audacity" element, which Sarris talked
      about, and which would seem to be at odds with the "environmental"
      direction. But the audacity has to be figured in. In ONLY YESTERDAY, it
      rears its head right in step with the melodrama: the first images of
      Margaret in bed are startlingly corpse-like. Other Stahl films play up
      the audacity more than ONLY YESTERDAY, but one usually feels this aspect
      of the direction to some extent. And it goes some way toward justifying
      the idea of Stahl as a melodramatist.

      The "audacity" and the "environmental" angle don't seem to go together at
      first glance, but if you put them together and permute them a little bit,
      you come close to a general idea of what Stahl is doing.

      And now the SPOILER about the difference between ONLY YESTERDAY and LETTER

      In the earlier film, the letter stops a suicide in progress, and in the
      latter it creates a suicide. A pretty big difference! Ah, Hollywood. -
    • Maxime Renaudin
      ... Browsing through past posts I missed, I can t help stopping by at this Stahl s pure jewel, which moves me more than all others he made. When Tomorrow
      Message 42 of 42 , Mar 24, 2005
        --- In a_film_by@yahoogroups.com, Dan Sallitt <sallitt@p...> wrote:
        > What we really need is a screening of WHEN TOMORROW COMES. - Dan

        Browsing through past posts I missed, I can't help stopping by at
        this Stahl's pure jewel, which moves me more than all others he
        made. "When Tomorrow comes" offers the perfect expression of the
        idea of renunciation that is at work in most of his movies. A steel
        gaze seizes the actors in the urgency of a few moments stolen from
        the everyday life. With an economy of gestures and movements that
        lets welling up the anxiety and the disillusion of a game that fools
        none. Stahl refuses almost constantly any style effect the lyricism
        of which could let explode the passion. Except in a few rare
        moments, as when the camera languorously accompanies Dunne from the
        spiral staircase to the piano where Boyer tries to play over the
        storm. The unreality of a shot that reconciles the moment and the
        eternity. In the last thirty minutes, each sequence seems to bear
        the very end of a never starting story. I believe I already claimed
        here my love for the farewell dinner final sequence. When the waiter
        comes to call back Boyer to the world. The irruption of his tragic
        hand, breaking into the purity of the frontal space, is one the most
        sublime cinema gesture I know.
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