Friday 19 July 2019

On Blu-ray - David Hare welcomes HOLD BACK THE DAWN (Mitchell Leisen, USA, 1941)

In this inexpressibly beautiful shot (above, click to enlarge), Mitchell Leisen give us a desperate refugee, stuck in Mexico, Georges Iscoveu (Charles Boyer) undergoing a subtle but profound transformation, unaware it's even happening, until the second screen (below), in a shot so sublime it parallels Rossellini's majestic closing shots of Viaggio in Italiaand the reconciliation of George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman in the "miracle" sequence that ends that masterpiece. 
Leisen, here, at the very end of Hold Back the Dawn (1941) takes the mise-en-scène for redemption even further than Rossellini's, into a kind of totally exhilarating, minimalist expression of completion. Unlike Rossellini, who cross cuts the tracks of Sanders and Bergman finding each other again in the crowd, Leisen never cuts back to the object of his redemption, a superb Olivia de Havilland, but simply keeps travelling with a fade to black. The effect is completely devastating. 
On a scale of emotional and formal purity, at the most sublime level this shot most closely reminds me of the closing static shot in Sternberg's Morocco in which Dietrich shakes off her mules and walks on into the desert, in Morocco with the other women and their goats and chattels until she, along with them disappears over the horizon into infinity. Meanwhile only the soundtrack remains alive, with the wind whistling over the desert sands. And the film fades to the Paramount mountain as a final affirmation of the supremacy of memory. And art. 
Leisen's film is one of his greatest, and the resonances today cannot be lost in this terrible age of refugees, millions cast adrift, moral equivalences that seem to overwhelm common sense, rising fascism and humanity at sea. 
The new Blu-ray from Arrow is a very welcome addition to the slowly growing Leisen repertoire on Blu-ray. The disc includes an Adrian Martin commentary which fully engages with the movie, and a terrific face to camera video essay, "Love Knows no Borders" from British scholar Geoff Andrew.

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