Deep Valley (1947) is a movie where the telling of the story is probably more important than the story itself; indeed, what is likely to be most memorable to the audience is the poetic cinematography by cameraman Ted McCord. In post-World War II Hollywood, film noir was sometimes deliciously softened and morphed into romance by introspective sensitivity.
This is our entry in The 1947 Blogathon hosted by Shadows and Satin, and Speakeasy blogs. Have a look here at the other great bloggers participating.
Directed by Jean Negulseco, we get the feeling Deep Valley was a warm-up for his Johnny Belinda the following year. The plot is familiar—a troubled young woman suffering from some handicap and shut off from the outside world is visited by an equally troubled stranger who will change her life. Ida Lupino plays the young woman with a natural, glowing gentleness. She is isolated on her parents’ remote property on the California coast, and traumatized by her parents’ estrangement. They live on separate floors of the house and do not communicate.
Veteran actress Fay Bainter is her self-pitying mother who playacts an invalid to punish her rough husband. Henry Hull is Ida’s scruffy, resentful father, who perhaps—though this is never really explored—feels guilty for the final argument which tore him and his wife apart when he struck her.
Ida Lupino is their whipping boy, the daughter caught between them, dismissed, used as a servant to clean and cook, but the worst torment for her is her parents’ hatred of each other and their failure to express any affection for her. The poor girl is starved for a kind word, let alone affection. Her tearful pleading for a sign of any love in the house once she can finally find the words is heartbreaking. Only her dog shows her any devotion. She escapes the house when she can and roams the woods with him, finding freedom in the outdoors. She stutters at home, but in the woods can converse quietly with the squirrel she feeds, and he scrambles onto her back.
The stranger is played by Dane Clark. He is a convict on a chain gang who escapes. He and Ida find each other in the woods, and fall in love. He is a well-meaning guy, whose quick temper and lack of judgment has gotten him afoul with the law, but he is always repentant afterwards and baffled, frustrated that he almost always does the wrong thing. He is disillusioned by the world, as isolated from it in his chains as she is a prisoner of her home—but his love for her has a gentling influence. He finds peace; she finds love and acceptance.
It’s a kind of role in which I think Dane Clark was best used. Repeatedly referred to, ad nauseum, as the poor man’s John Garfield, Dane Clark did not have Garfield’s strengths, his particular way of playing the cussed and outcast. However, he had something Garfield did not: a manner of vulnerability that is eloquent and heart-wrenching. I find I like Clark less in hard villain roles because he does not play them as well as somebody like John Garfield. There is a mask, like he’s trying too hard. But give him a role like this, where he can be on a knife-edge of anger and anguish, where he can show his softer side as a tortured soul, and he’s wonderful.
A few particularly great scenes: when Garfield and Lupino lie along the brook and attempt to catch a fish, their exuberance at their success, and physical closeness leading to their first kiss, so much that we want to cheer the fish too.
The scene where, Dane Clark hiding in the hay loft of the dilapidated old barn, protected from the sheriff by Lupino, and she sneaks up the ladder to check on him. He thinks it’s the sheriff after him, and to defend himself, he grabs an old scythe. The long sharp blade glints in the dimness of the barn as Ida’s head pops up into the loft. We see Clark’s horrified, manic expression as he comes frighteningly close to decapitating her, but for perhaps the first time in his life, he pauses before he acts rashly. They stare at each other a moment, she is acutely aware of the inner strength it took for him to stop himself. His tortured, sweaty face bears the look of a man clinging to the edge of sanity.
Wayne Morris plays a construction engineer. A highway is being carved out of the hillside where Lupino’s parents live, the work being done by the convicts. Morris, always a dependable actor, here is a nice, boring guy who has taken a fancy to Ida. She has no feelings for him, but we may wonder if there had been no Dane Clark in the picture, would she eventually fall for the kind but dull Morris?
An interesting subplot is the change in the relationship between Ida’s parents. When Ida runs off, her mother can no longer wallow in her self-absorbed and utterly phony invalidism. Fay Bainter gets dressed, goes downstairs for the first time in seven years, and orders her husband to stand away from the stove while she gets breakfast, as if she’d been doing it for years, as if she just left the room for five minutes. He takes her gruff and grudging take-charge attitude as a sign she has forgiven him, and he becomes gentle in her presence. They make small talk at the table over breakfast. This is a simple scene their daughter would have loved—mother and father together, but it only happens when Ida’s absence forces them to, for want of a better word, reconcile. It’s an intriguing, weird sort of development, but it happens too fast and too automatically to be believed. There is an absurdity to it that does not match the tone of the rest of the movie.
The biggest problem with the plot, however, is that we know from the start that the romance between Dane Clark and Ida Lupino is doomed. There is no hope for an escaped convict, no happy ending, and the only relish from the brief relationship for either is the epiphany that they have come to a greater understanding of themselves and have found the ecstasy of love for a few hours.
At the end, we see Miss Lupino and Mr. Morris standing atop a bluff, and he putting his jacket over her shoulders to fend off the chilly breeze. She walks away, he follows. It is as if he will be the new man in her life by default, but the emptiness in her eyes that she displayed at the beginning of the film has returned.
What lingers to the viewer are the sometimes stunning shots: The a construction worker silhouetted against bright sunlight; the deep woods; the fine, shabby detail of the house, and the intensity of the quiet close-ups on Dane Clark and Ida Lupino. It is a dismal story, made beautiful through the eye of cameraman Ted McCord and director Jean Negulesco.
Have a look at the other great entries in The 1947 Blogathon.
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