I Loved a Thief
Remember the Night
Dir. Mitchell Leisen, USA, 1940, 94 minutes (at Film Forum)
In Remember the Night, Barbara Stanwyck is Lee Leander, a dba for Anna Rose Malone. She’s a woman down on her luck who makes ends meet, sort of, as a resourceful thief. It helps in that business to be beautiful and attractively groomed. Her arrest for stealing a bracelet from a 5th Ave. jewelry store at Christmas time threatens to ruin her holiday – or does it?
This is a screwball script by Preston Sturges, directed by Mitchell Leisen, so any pivot in a haywire direction tens to lead to laughs and wild flourishes. Ever the satirist of middle-class propriety and pomposity, Sturges turns a court scene into a farce of faux-sentimentality as John Sargent (Fred MacMurray), an affable assistant district attorney, faces the impossibility of getting a jury to convict a woman at Christmas time. “It’s very hard to put a woman in jail, no matter what she’s done,” he’s told, even though the defendant has a record, “a first offender at Christmas time is tougher than tiger meat.” Typical Sturges parlance.
The orotund defense counsel calls Lee the victim of schizophrenia (“the bracelet was removed during a temporary loss of will and consciousness, now known as ‘schizophrenia, ’ but formerly known as hypnotism”– a word that frightens the jury even though the verbose lawyer can’t define it. But the speech gives the prosecutor his secret weapon. Since neither he nor the jury knows what schizophrenia is, the court is asked for a continuance to allow for research on the psychopathology. Sargent pays Lee’s bail, and he offers her his apartment — and not for “the obvious,” as Lee suspects — while he’s back home for the holidays in Indiana. But wait – she’s a Hoosier, too. So they set off on a road trip home.
In the process, Sturges subverts the venerable American myths of family and heartland. (He already took care of the courts.) After Lee and John drive off the unlit road in the night and end up on a Pennsylvania farm, the landowner, preceded by his cows, is there in the morning with a shotgun, determined to assert his property rights against trespassers (who have no way of knowing that they’re on his land) and enforcing the law with a loaded gun. The judge happens to be a friend.
The couple relies on Lee’s wits and nerve to escape. We sense that she’s done this before, under all sorts of assumed names. Eventually they arrive at the home of her mother, whom she fled years before – a shadowy Victorian house that prefigures ominously the residence of Norman Bates? – and their encounter with Lee’s re-married mother after years of separation is more wintry than the weather outside. So much for blood ties. Warmth on the Wabash is overrated, as the Sturges script descends into real sadness – not his usual territory. But it’s Stanwyck’s territory, and she (thanks to Leisen) makes you feel the pain of a young woman abandoned by her family and – soon enough, we assume – by a prosecutor with a good heart.
There’s loads of hokey Americana in Remember the Night when the story loses its edge in romance – as Sturges predestined it. Lee and John head to his family’s homestead, and the warm heartland is suddenly recognizable. I won’t give things away, but everything including the kitchen sink welcomes Lee into the farmhouse that John left behind.
Sturges throws a twist into the plot that he prepared for the audience in the madcap flight from Pennsylvania. To avoid encountering a redneck posse, the travelers pass through Canada on the way back. Outside the reach of American law? Figure out the opportunity.
Sturges provides the laughs and a surprising tenderness in Remember the Night, his last screenplay as a screenwriter before he began to direct his own scripts, and one-time production designer Mitchell Leisen provides the look. He gets plenty of help from Stanwyck, who could be as witty and clever as she could be vulnerable in radiant close-ups. Four years on, the actress would play the scheming idle gold-digger who takes on a murder gambit with insurance heel MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944), also playing at Film Forum (part of the Stanwyck series that runs through December 31).
For more on Stanwyck, see the massively informative A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, by Victoria Wilson, which ends in the 1940, the year in which Remember the Night was released.