Saturday, 24 April 2021

Movie Review: Back Street (1932)

A romantic drama, Back Street is a tender exploration of a woman trapped in an impossible love.

In Cincinnati of the early 1900s, Ray Schmidt (Irene Dunne) is a vivacious young woman. She enjoys the nightlife and the company of men, but worries her fun-loving reputation harms her ability to find true love. She turns down a marriage offer from her cerebral neighbour Kurt Shendler (George Meeker), finding him kind but unexciting. Kurt keeps his marriage proposal open as he embarks on a career in the budding automobile industry.

Ray meets banker Walter Saxel (John Boles) and they immediately fall in love, although he is already engaged to be married to someone else. A twist of fate prevents Ray from potentially altering his marriage plans. They separate but meet again five years later in New York City and the passion immediately reignites. He is now married with two kids, but she agrees to be his mistress. He provides her with an apartment, and she starts life as the other woman, dedicated to a man who loves her deeply but will never leave his family.

An adaptation of the novel by Fannie Hurst, Back Street is clear-headed and unapologetic. The script (co-written by Ben Hecht) succeeds on multiple fronts, the love between Ray and Walter captured as painfully real, allowing the characters to emerge as soulful, flawed but also familiar adults. The high production quality is evident in brisk pacing, agile transitions between sets, and sometimes bustling street scenes. Covering many years and locations, the deep focus on an evolving relationship is ultimately captivating. 

Adopting a non-judgemental stance, director John M. Stahl never looks down on his subject. Instead Ray judges herself and is wracked by self-doubt as she sees herself as others see her, Irene Dunne sparking in her ability to convey the contradictory emotions inherent in longing for a man who can never be a full partner. And on just the one occasion Ray does suggest to Walter that he upturn his life in her favour.

But the uneasy and sometimes dangerously hollow compromise of being just a hidden part of a wonderful man's life may also suffice. As their long-term reality evolves, Walter is never less than honest and Ray approaches each subsequent step deliberately, the trade-offs never obscured and the implications clearly understood.

By bursting through the wall simplistically defining right and wrong, Back Street arrives at the place where lovers achieve partial fulfilment. As Ray finds out, the thorny benefits of the mistress arrangement carry enough appeal to fill a building. Back streets lack the warm welcome of picturesque boulevards, but they are worth exploring with open-minded courage.



All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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