Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Undercurrent (1946)


Undercurrent (1946)

In 1946 Robert Mitchum was under contract to RKO. They had loaned him out to MGM for two pictures Undercurrent (1946) and Desire Me (1947) which were filmed back-to-back. He had relatively small roles in both as the third person in a romantic melodrama. Both films turned out to be box office failures. Not that this hurt Mitchum's career trajectory at all. In fact, placing Mitchum in movies with the type of high-caliber stars that were missing from RKO's line-up, in this case MGM heavyweights Greer Garson in Desire Me and Katharine Hepburn and Robert Taylor in Undercurrent, was incredible exposure for Mitchum. And the following year he'd make Out of the Past (1947) which would help secure him a spot as a popular leading man in Hollywood.


Katharine Hepburn, Robert Taylor and Robert Mitchum in Undercurrent (1946)
Katharine Hepburn, Robert Taylor and Robert Mitchum's shadow in a publicity shot for MGM

Directed by Vincente Minnelli, Undercurrent (1946) is part film noir, part neurotic melodrama. Katharine Hepburn stars as Ann, a scientist and 30-something daughter of well-respected Professor Hamilton (Edmund Gwenn) whom she lovingly refers to as Dink. She's a tomboy, wears pants, loves chemistry, and doesn't fuss too much over her appearance. But in the world she lives in she's really just a dowdy woman on the verge of spinsterhood. When charming young inventor Alan Garroway (Robert Taylor) comes to visit Professor Hamilton, Ann is soon swept away by his romantic gestures. Garroway is attracted to Ann much in the same way he would be to a new idea for an invention. He sees possibility to transform her into a glamorous socialite. All seems well in their marriage until it becomes apparent that Garroway harbors dark secrets. He's severed his relationship with his brother Michael Garroway (Robert Mitchum) and in conversation with Ann he paints the picture of unforgivable sibling betrayal. Ann believes him until she discovers Alan's first lie and things begins to unfold. Ann suffers the internal battle between her love for Alan and her desire for the truth. Is Alan really the man she fell in love with? And where is Michael?

Katharine Hepburn and Robert Mitchum in Undercurrent (1946)
Katharine Hepburn and Robert Mitchum in Undercurrent (1946)

 "Is there good swimming?" - Ann
"No, riptide." - Michael
"Looks very calm." - Ann
"You can't always see that undercurrent." - Michael
"Like life." - Ann

Clearly I watched this movie for one reason: Robert Mitchum. While his character Michael is central to the story, Mitchum himself doesn't appear until 62 minute mark of a 2 hour movie and his total screen time is probably less than 10 minutes. Needless to say this was a disappointment for me but I was grateful for to check off another Mitchum movie off my to-be-watched list.

While it's categorized as a film noir, I like the term "neurotic melodrama" a lot better. It really captures the overall theme of the movie. The build up of tension is slow and methodical. None of the roles suited the main players. Ann was a weak role for Katharine Hepburn whom we all know shines when she has strong characters to play. Mitchum as the mysterious brother was also a weak character for him. Robert Taylor's performance was decent. I grew more fearful of his character as the story progressed so I thought that was an effective part of the movie. I think this film is worth watching for the main players, the melodrama and the build up of tension. This was Jayne Meadows film debut. She plays Sylvia Benton, a no-nonsense socialite who was unwillingly caught in a love triangle with the two brothers. She has a small but fantastic part as the tough woman who opens Ann's eyes to what's happening around her. Clinton Sundberg plays Taylor's right-hand man. Marjorie Main has a small role in the beginning of the film as the Hamilton's maid and mother figure to Ann.

This movie was a departure for Minnelli so he wasn't the only one on set who out of his element. From what I've read, Hepburn and Mitchum didn't get along which could be why there is very little to no tenderness between them in what should be tender scenes in the film. In an interview with Dick Lochte, Mitchum remembered overhearing Hepburn refer to him as a "cheap flash actor." This was the only time they worked together which was probably for the best.

The film didn't perform well in theaters. In 1947 playwright Fay Elhert sued MGM for using the title of his play, one he submitted to MGM for consideration, for this movie. Laraine Day had been promised the title role of Ann in exchange for her appearing in Keep Your Powder Dry (1945). MGM didn't hold up their end of the bargain and Day severed her contract with them.

I'm conflicted about this movie. I want to like it but something pulls me back. I can't quite put my finger on it. It could be shorter with even more tension. Maybe other actors better suited to the roles would have improved the film for me. But otherwise it's just an ordinary movie that I just happened to enjoy but not too much.

If you've seen this film I would love to know what you think!

I watched this film on iTunes. I missed an opportunity to see it at the Brattle Theatre as part of their Robert Mitchum centennial repertory series but hope to catch another screening soon.

Sources:
TCMDB
Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don't Care by Lee Server
Mitchum in His Own Words edited by Jerry Roberts


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