Beyond the Forest (1949)

Directed by King Vidor

Rosa Moline is bored with life in a small town. She loves Chicago industrialist Neil Latimer who has a hunting lodge nearby. Rosa squeezes her husband’s patients to pay their bills so she can visit Chicago; her husband’s patience is also tried: he tells her to go and never come back. Once there, Neil tells her he doesn’t want her. Back home and pregnant, Neil shows up and now wants her. The caretaker at Neil’s lodge threatens to reveal her pregnancy..

The King Vidor/Bette Davis melodrama Beyond the Forest (1949) is mostly remembered today for a single line of dialogue. Davis – miscast as a frustrated housewife in Smalltown USA – surveys her drab but actually rather cosy living room, and snarls under her breath: “What a dump!” This richly enjoyable moment – recycled by Edward Albee in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and mimicked to death by three generations of drag queens – has reduced a complex and fascinating film to the status of a camp joke.

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It’s true that Beyond the Forest has rarely had a good press. Davis herself disliked the script, and Hollywood rumour claims that Warner Bros. only cast her as a ploy – hoping she would rebel and walk out on her contract. If so, they were sadly disappointed. Davis completed the film (although she did try, allegedly, to have Vidor fired as director) but it turned out to be her last for Warners, a studio where she had reigned supreme for over a decade. Beyond the Forest flopped with audiences and critics, but has since been hailed by Bad Movie Aficionados as “arguably the definitive high camp hootenanny” (1). And that, over the past 65 years, has become the standard view.

If Beyond the Forest deserves serious attention from film buffs (and I feel it does) that does not mean it is not lurid, vulgar, trashy, overblown and fatally miscast. At 40 years of age, Davis was clearly too old to play small-town sexpot Rosa Moline (“a midnight girl in a nine o’clock town”) who schemes and murders without qualms, in her efforts to run away to Chicago and snare a wealthy lover. A square peg in the Hollywood dream factory, Davis had become a star despite her looks and not because of them. (In her early days at Warners, one executive complained that she had “as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville”.) Here, in Beyond the Forest, she is “acting” youth as strenuously as she once acted middle age (or even old age) in The Old Maid (Edmund Goulding, 1939), The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941) or Mr. Skeffington (Vincent Sherman, 1944).

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Perversely, it is the very wrongness of her casting that makes Beyond the Forest such a riveting experience. It is, perhaps, Molly Haskell who puts it best:

And here is Davis, not beautiful, not sexy, not even young, convincing us that she is all these things – by the vividness of her own self-image, by the vision of herself she projects so fiercely that we have no choice but to accept it. (2)

Her desire to be all the things she so patently is not lends a poignancy to Davis as Rosa Moline. One that is wholly lacking in, say, Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl, 1945) or Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1948) – two characters with whom she is often compared. One look at Rosa tells us that her struggle to escape will fail. Her defeat and, finally, her downfall take on an inevitability that tilts Beyond the Forest away from melodrama and towards tragedy. Rosa may be a ham, but she is as irrevocably doomed as The Trojan Women.

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Given the tensions between the star and her role, it makes sense that Vidor should focus the film on Rosa’s own problematic self-image. Throughout his career, Vidor showed a fondness for “wild” women, who might give themselves sexually or emotionally – but would never submit to a male-dominated society, or play the game by male rules. Examples include the characters played by Dolores del Rio in Bird of Paradise (1932), Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (1937), Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun (1946) and Ruby Gentry (1952) or even Gina Lollobrigida in his much-maligned Bible epic Solomon and Sheba (1959). Yet most, if not all, of these women had powerful men as their lovers and/or adversaries. Jones in Duel in the Sun might shoot Gregory Peck’s character, if he did not shoot her first. With luck, they could fire off their guns simultaneously, and die together.

Yet nothing (and nobody) in Beyond the Forest gives any such hope to Rosa Moline. Joseph Cotten, as her dull-but-decent doctor husband, is a study in just how irrelevant a leading actor can be. David Brian, as her on-again/off-again tycoon lover, is similarly uncompelling – and his role, in any case, is much too small. The one viable relationship that Vidor’s mise en scène holds out for Davis is a communion with her own image, reflected in a series of mirrors throughout the film. We spy her first – posed on a rock in a river, like some over-the-hill dime store Venus – gazing into a pocket mirror as she idly plucks her eyebrows. A few scenes later, a rich young beauty (Ruth Roman) arrives from Chicago and promptly sparks her envy. Davis, waiting until she is alone and unobserved, “borrows” her rival’s mink coat and poses in front of a looking glass, tenderly and erotically caressing the fur. As Paul Roen rightly observes, “despite the assortment of good-looking men around, she saves all her real passion for (this) scene” (3).

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Finally, as the film grinds to its climax, an ailing Rosa (dying from a self-induced abortion) rises from her bed and makes one last-ditch effort to escape from Hicksville. She staggers to her bedroom mirror and smears herself, grotesquely, with lipstick and mascara. Her reflection leering out at her (and us) is an eerie flashforward to Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962). (Or even, and particularly for gay audiences, to Dirk Bogarde at the finale of Death in Venice [Luchino Visconti, 1971].) Indeed, there is a case for Beyond the Forest – and not the wildly over-praised All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950) – as the key performance of Bette Davis’ troubled mid-career. It captures Davis with her star power undimmed, yet poised uneasily between her ’30s and ’40s heyday as a diva at Warners and her reinvention in the ’60s as a horror movie icon. For all its rampant vulgarity, Beyond the Forest is visually and emotionally alive – in a way that Mankiewicz’s far more literate, polished and civilised film so seldom is.

It is also, I feel, subversive in a way that few films in a complacent post-World War II Hollywood would ever dare to be. We in the audience may empathise with Rosa, not because she is in any way likeable or engaging (she isn’t) but because we ourselves would dread the sheer tedium of living in that house, in that town, in that particular sweltering summer. Andrew Britton, one of the film’s most vocal defenders, insisted that “King Vidor derives a critique of women’s oppression as audacious as any the cinema has given us from the story of a woman whose values and behaviour are, on the face of it, merely reprehensible” (4).

Jeanine Basinger, another writer to break critical ranks, reads the film in a way that may sound (to those who haven’t seen or don’t like it) perversely positive and upbeat:

If Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke (1967) is a hero because he knows he’ll lose but fights the system anyway… and if T E Lawrence is a hero because he leads the Arabs to violence and destruction… and if Charles Laughton is a hero because he murders his horrible wife in The Suspect (1944)… then Rosa Moline, a murderous fighter who wrecks the lives of people around her, is a hero, too. (5)

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One person’s hero, of course, is another person’s raging homicidal psychopath – as even a cursory glance at a Rambo or Terminator movie should tell you. For the most part, a commercial action movie depends on our ability to accept that distinction – or not to question it, at any rate, for the better part of two hours. Beyond the Forest is one of a very few Hollywood films that invite us to question the forbidden and violent impulses of its lead character – not to mention our own forbidden and violent impulses, should we dare to empathise with her. Not a fashionable thing to do in the US in 1949, in a country flush from its victory in World War II – but a thing that needs doing, all the same. Now, perhaps, more than ever.

 
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