Gazing Sadly Into The Abyss

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The Arnelo Affair, released by MGM in 1947, is a black-&-white noir melodrama that, while a minor film, does look at something major:  How a spouse will contemplate adultery without meaning, or even wanting to.  In this case, a beautiful young wife, Anne, receiving no attention from her busy lawyer husband, is drawn to one of her spouse’s clients, a nightclub owner named Arnelo (John Hodiak), who reeks of shady doings.  She’s tempted to stray not by any fatal attraction but simply because Arnelo talks to her.  Brought to Anne’s home, Arnelo’s decently embarrassed when the husband cancels a planned night out with his wife to discuss business with him instead.  So he compliments Anne on her dress and on her interior decoration of her apartment, which leads him to invite Anne to decorate his own offices.  He promises she’ll find such a job “interesting…”

It unfortunately becomes a helluva lot more than that…

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Note the film’s release date, after the end of World War Two, and what that might have meant for targeted female audiences.  It marks the cultural return to ‘normalcy,’ the re-establishment of hearth and home and traditional gender roles.  Hollywood certainly took notice.  That same year, for example, Warner Bros. released The Unfaithful, in which a wife murders a man she claims was an intruder in her home, just before her demobbed soldier husband returns.  What gradually unravels is that this ‘intruder’ was no stranger but the wife’s wartime lover.  The film explicitly references the war in its examination of marital straying (due to the wife’s loneliness).  Interestingly, The New York Times review noted how the film addressed the then-“swelling divorce problem”—almost as if Hollywood, after rallying the troops during wartime, now needed to contain the aftereffects (the film ends with a tidy little speech by family lawyer Lew Ayres urging the couple to stay together).

However, The Arnelo Affair never references the war.  Here the culprit, if you will, is the husband’s workaholism.  His job devotion keeps him from spending time with his wife, as evidenced in that early scene of the cancelled night out, the wife left to spend the evening with only her disappointed tears.  Her one visible reaction to her husband’s neglect is to gaze sadly, with downcast eyes.  The constantly bereft Anne does much sad gazing throughout the film and, as played by the luminously gorgeous Frances Gifford (you wonder why hubby George Murphy ignores this stunning creature), all that sad gazing looks awfully good on her. 

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But the husband’s devotion to job over family highlights something else in post-war 1940s society:  The rise of conspicuous consumption.  Hubby won’t stop working because he wants to provide his wife and small son with luxuries he couldn’t buy a few years earlier.  You see it in the film’s fabulous ‘40s fashions and interior décor:  Swank nightclubs, chic dress shops, and deluxe bedrooms; jewel-accented turbans, smartly tilted hats, wide-shouldered suits cinched at the waist, and those knee-length furs that no 1940s well-dressed woman left home without.  It’s seen even in those beautiful objects that appear onscreen during the film’s credit sequence, immediately announcing the film’s material concerns.

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Yes, I know, it’s MGM, Hollywood Dream Factory, and all that, but in this case the acquisition of expensive goods is embedded in the story.  Gifford’s character once wanted to be an interior decorator, and her best friend Eve Arden runs a pricey clothing salon where Gifford frequently shops (Arden played a similar role in The Unfaithful; she must’ve gotten awfully tired of such roles).  Anne can also afford a large apartment and a full-time cook-housekeeper while her son attends school.  The upshot is that Anne has little to do.  She’s like a jeweled accessory in her own home; and, with the servant doing all the chores, and husband and son away all day, time hangs heavy on her exquisitely manicured hands…

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It’s in this dovetailing of post-war consumption, spousal neglect, and wifely confinement (Anne gave up her interior-decorating ambitions when she married) that Tony Arnelo squeezes in.

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I want to single out John Hodiak’s performance here as Arnelo.  He doesn’t play Arnelo conventionally, as suave, slick, or romantic.  Instead, he makes his character creepy and disturbing.  You see it in the film’s opening, an in media res scene in which Arnelo has an assignation with Anne (before the film segues into a lengthy flashback).  Hodiak is expressionless here—blank, cool, yet punctiliously polite (Hodiak never shows anger throughout), whereas Gifford looks tortured.  Arnelo, it seems, has committed a crime and is framing Anne for the fall.  When she asks why he’s tormenting her, his response is to blame hershe made him do it.  Arnelo thinks with a psychopath’s logic:  Anne, in her cool beauty and resistance to his ardor, is responsible for his behavior.  His goal is to possess her, and nothing she says, regarding outer reality, makes a difference.  There’s also that startling psychopathic ability, to sense underlying desires and play on them.  Arnelo offers Anne flattery and attention, but, more, he offers her something to do.  The devil, it seems, can always find work—of certain kinds—for the upper-class housewife’s idle hands.

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There isn’t much action in the film, mainly Gifford’s melancholy gaze and Hodiak’s impassive one.  Yet the film itself, not just its title character, is creepy.  It plays slowly, as we watch Anne weaken, stumble, fall; her voiceover narrates her own thoughts, analyzing her behavior, her desire not to be pulled into a tawdry affair (and, despite his money, his taste, his stated desire for finer things, there’s something tawdry, and crude, about Arnelo, without it needing to be stated).  Her interior monologues are like an ongoing psychoanalytic session (another 1940s obsession), as Anne clinically examines her actions and how they lead to bad consequences.  Being it’s late 1940s noir, that means murder.

But the one scene that will stick in your mind (it did in mine) is the first, prolonged meeting between Anne and Arnelo, when she goes to his rooms, presumably to start decorating.  Again, it begins in the middle, Anne seated, silent, watching; again, it’s almost in stasis, as Arnelo just talks to Anne, flattering her, but also in control—you feel he’s manipulating the onscreen action.  He praises her beauty, tells her about his impoverished background and his mother (natch), and then—he feeds her grapes…of which she takes a bite, right from his hand:  “Cold grapes from a blue bowl,” he says, “were made by the angels for the beautiful.”  The moment is intimate, strange, eerie; you sense something (beyond fruit) is being offered to, and accepted by, this woman from this man, without being specified as to what it is. 

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What also makes this scene unnerving is how there’s no sense of compulsion or force being applied.  Anne isn’t repulsed by Arnelo.  As he comes on to her, she doesn’t react, at first; she listens, she’s interested.  She’s not shocked, frightened, or embarrassed (she even says she’d like to meet his mom).  Her reactions are ambiguous, unexpected, we get only hints, traces, of what she might be thinking (her voiceover is silent here).  I can’t recall another scene quite like it in 1940s American noir; it plays like a slow, sinister dance around a subject not allowed to be spoken out loud.  And throughout there’s that look on Anne’s face…curious, pitying, sympathetic, almost…loving…

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The scene concludes with Arnelo dismissing Anne, sending her home—she’s clearly dismayed he does so—but with another invitation to meet him the next day, at “2 o’clock” (it’s creepy because it’s so precise).  Thus Anne, casually, yet deliberately, takes up Arnelo’s offer—which, we grasp, will a seduction.  That doesn’t come off (the Code, no doubt), but Anne is definitely tempted—she doesn’t want to be, she’s desperate not to succumb, she’s frightened of her impulse to follow through on Arnelo’s (implied) proposition—but still she comes the next day; something in her makes her take that step towards the abyss.  Maybe that explains Arnelo’s obsession with her, what goads his passion.  Anne is vulnerable and exposed; she’s looking for trouble.  Oh, what roiled beneath that post-WW2 return to ‘normalcy’?  The film portrays lust without muss, its lavishly accoutered surfaces, gorgeous fashions, and perfect applications of hair and make-up lacquering over dangerous, disturbing desires—which yet bely the movie’s glossy, anodyne façade.

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The film unravels in its second half, focusing on a police investigation, and it ends patly, with an unconvincing change of heart and Anne saved from her folly, her husband promising to do better by his better half.  Was this a way for female viewers to have it both ways, fantasizing about affairs with attractive, dangerous strangers, while being pulled out of the muck at the last minute by a forgiving spouse?  Was Hollywood playing its own creepy, seductive, box-office dance and not following through?  The Arnelo Affair itself doesn’t pay out on its own roiling, unsettling implications, but Gifford and Hodiak, and director Arch Oboler, give us, at least in one scene, a dance to gaze at, sadly or not.

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You can watch The Arnelo Affair on YouTube here.  You can also watch Robert Osborne’s intro and ‘outro‘ to The Arnelo Affair when the film played on TCM in 2014 for an all-John-Hodiak evening.

 

 

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