Sunday, October 18, 2015


1977 was a very competitive year for Oscars. Nominees for best picture included The Turning Point, The Goodbye Girl, Star Wars, Annie Hall (the eventual winner), and this film directed by Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, From Here to Eternity, A Man for All Seasons).

The movie is based on one of the stories told in Lillian Hellman’s Pentimento. The opening of the film explains the title of the author’s memoir. We see the elderly Hellman (literally – it is the writer in the boat here and at the end of the story), and we hear Jane Fonda, who plays the author, talking about how a painter may alter what he was going to depict, and painted over a previous work. But, sometimes the earlier images are seen through the later work. Here are Hellman’s words:

Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress; a child makes way for a dog; a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter “repented,” changed his mind.

Hellman uses this artistic term as a metaphor for memory. Old thoughts and images mentally buried under other experiences are excavated and brought to the surface by the writer. She says, “I wanted to see for me what was there for me once, and what is there for me now.” Zinnemann then shows a cinematic representation of this artistic effect by presenting a train pulling out of a station against the water on which Hellman’s boat floats. The train will later be part of Hellman’s journey to Berlin. In fact, the entire movie depicts flashbacks to emphasize the resurgence of memories. Hellman admits that memory can be faulty, but she absolutely trusts what she remembers about her friend, Julia.

The two were friends since adolescence. Lilly would visit Julia at her rich grandparents’ mansion around the holidays. Julia’s elderly relatives are unapproachably stiff and formal in their strict adherence to etiquette. Julia’s mother is never around, associating with affluent types in Europe. When Lilly asks her about one of Julia’s visits to Scotland, her friend says she doesn’t “remember.” There were just many “fancy” people.  It is noteworthy that in a story about memory we are shown was is forgettable – the kind of people F. Scott Fitzgerald labeled as the careless rich in The Great Gatsby.

One of the flashbacks shows a young Julia incensed by the apathy of her relatives toward the sick in Cairo, and the unhealthy living conditions of the poverty-stricken workers in her mother’s home in Scotland. This early concern for the physical well-being of the oppressed is probably why Julia studies to be a doctor. She became an example for Lilly to follow. When they were young, Julia crosses a rushing river by walking over a twisty tree trunk. Lilly is afraid, and Julia tells her to go below and find a safe passage. Lilly tries the difficult way, stumbles, and is rescued by Julia. She tells Lilly that she will be able to make it on her own the next time. 

The “next time” appears when Lilly is an adult. The main narrative of the movie is set at the time of the rise of Nazi Germany. When she visits Paris on her way to a play festival in Moscow, a Nazi resistance associate of Julia confronts Lilly at her hotel. The man, Mr. Johann (Maximilian Schell), tells her that her friend wants Lilly to secretly transport Julia’s money to Berlin on her way to Russia. The cash will be used to secure the release of Jews and political prisoners through bribes. It can be dangerous for Lilly, since she is Jewish. Julia had once told Lilly to “work hard, take chances, be very bold.” But just as she told her that she didn’t have to take the dangerous way across the water, Julia told Johann to warn Lilly that sometimes “she is afraid of being afraid.” So, he tells Lilly if she feels that she “cannot do it, don’t do it.” Her confusion over knowing the depth of her courage is noted by her lover, writer Dashiell Hammett (played by Jason Robards in a supporting Oscar winning performance) in an earlier scene when he tells her that she is really the neighborhood bulldog but thinks she is a cocker spaniel. She hesitantly agrees to transport the money. While running toward the train, she stumbles, just like she did when she tried to cross the river. So, that earlier crossing is echoed here where she must find the courage to make this more meaningful crossing into dangerous territory.

Lilly succeeds in her task, but she is definitely not a convincing covert operative. She has the help of two resistance passengers, but must be reminded of when to wear the hat that contains the money and what to do with the box of chocolates she is given. When she has a brief rendezvous with Julia at a restaurant in Berlin to drop off the money, it is a heartbreaking scene. It amplifies the feelings between the two. Julia lost her leg in an attack by the Nazi youth at the college in Vienna. She tells her friend that she now has a baby, who she has significantly named Lilly. She plans on going to New York for a new leg and wants Lilly to take care of her baby, who is currently in Alsace with a baker’s family. But this is not a happy tale. Julia is murdered. Lilly tries desperately to find out about the baby, but her attempts to find her through Julia’s resistance contacts end in failure. Hammett tells her that her comrades only used Julia for her money and didn’t care about the baby, who was probably dead.

Lilly has an on-again, off-again relationship with the older and famous Hammett (The Maltese Falcon). The story begins with her living with him on Cape Cod as she is working on her first play, The Children’s Hour. The movie is effective in showing the ups and downs of the writer’s life, mostly in very quick images. Lilly rips pages out of the typewriter, throws the machine out of the window, talks to herself while walking along the beach, and is told by Hammett to throw away an early draft. She eventually becomes famous, but is reminded by Hammett that notoriety is just “a paint job. It has nothing to do with writing.”

Despite Hammett’s help, the men in this film are not as reliable as are the women. Hammett tells Lilly to go to Paris without him to work on her play, and later does not travel with her to Europe and Moscow. He is not there for the opening night of her play on Broadway. It is suggested that he has affairs with other women. The father of Julia’s baby is not important to her and didn’t want anything to do with the child. Although the relationship between the two women is shown as platonic, in Lily’s narration she says that Julia had “the most beautiful face I have ever seen.” She hugs her and tells her that she loves her.

This film is primarily a story about the empowering, loving relationship between two women, and overcoming one’s fear to find the courage to unselfishly commit to helping people in need.

Next week’s movie is I want to Live!

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