Into the Morass
By Howard Hampton
Bette Davis, King Vidor, and the black hole of Beyond the Forest
If they held a pageant for most dyspeptic film of the 1940s, King Vidor’s Beyond the Forest (49) would have been a shoo-in finalist, and Bette Davis easily would have walked away with the prize for Miss Monstrosity. Morbid, strident, bitterly divided against itself, Vidor’s seething ruin of a melodrama is festooned with enough borderline- personality traits to merit its own subcategory in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Beyond the Forest is neither an overlooked gem nor a coherent social statement—although Davis’s evil-incarnate social climber/money-grubber might have sprung from Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory of capitalism—nor merely a camp classic. (This is the movie where she famously sneers, “What a dump,” a phrase both Edward Albee and Carol Burnett borrowed to great effect.) Nor is it a representative women’s picture, film noir, Dreiserian tragedy, or titillating potboiler, though it stirs in (or coughs up) chunks of each. It’s the ultimate bad hangover of a movie: a debris-stuffed grab bag of recrimination, guilt, malice, shame, and generalized nausea.
Davis was 40, at the end of her rope, badly miscast as femme fatale Rosa Moline, and as desperate to get out of her contract with Warner Bros. as Rosa is to flee her cramped little town/home/marriage for the lights of Chicago. She never gave a shriller, more unmodulated performance, though maybe that’s the wrong word: hating the role with every fiber of her being, her performance feels more like an act of resistance than a piece of acting. Miss Davis regrets having to be here, but as she has no choice, she can at least do her best to make sure her boss will regret it as much.
Rosa is a woman born with two fingers down her throat: despising life in every form, she’s the death instinct in heels (which she even wears out when boating on a lake: her motto is apparently “Those shoes! I’d kill for those shoes!”). She’s stuck in a one-sawmill Wisconsin town called Loyalton, and determined to escape at any cost. This she-monster shoots a scampering porcupine out of a tree simply because she detests nature: “They irritate me,” she explains to the old caretaker she’ll later shoot just as nonchalantly. When her saintly sap of a husband (Joseph Cotten at his most obsequiously masochistic) insists that Rosa carry her baby to term, she throws herself down a hill to force a miscarriage. Seducing, blackmailing, murdering, aborting—Rosa is a sermon on what happens to women when they abandon their maternal instinct and give in to the temptations of the flesh and the shopping spree.
King Vidor directed the film as if waking up from the delirium of The Fountainhead and, upon finding himself in bed with Ayn Rand, resolved to expose her doctrine of radical selfishness as a nihilistic threat to the lives of ordinary, decent folk. Beyond the Forest presents its disapproval of Rosa in the most starkly sanctimonious terms possible. Yet the sanctimony is like the weather, or the smoke coming from the mill—the smog of values, a fact of dull life. And everyone here seems to exist in a state of dumb animal instinct: if Bette Davis is playing a rabid little fox, her industrialist lover is the alpha wolf, hubby a faithful veterinary sheepdog, and the townspeople his flock. She isn’t hated by the rest of them, just pitied for her inexplicable dissatisfaction with their ovine existence.
The oppressive tone is maintained by Max Steiner’s music, largely consisting of orchestral variations on “Chicago,” an excruciating device as subtle as an anvil tied to a bungee cord. Meanwhile Vidor spins the narrative back and forth as if it were a lazy Susan, serving up plot points one by one. Rosa deserts her husband; her lover rejects and humiliates her; she goes crawling back to hubby, faking remorse; she becomes pregnant, but her lover reenters the picture after dumping his society bride-to-be, craving Rosa after all.
And so the merry-go-round keeps turning: there’s the Victorian environment, and a nightmarish sawmill looming in the back- ground like a Marxist forget-me-not (or “I-told-you-so”). A gum-smacking Native American servant girl whose jeans and insolent backtalk infuriate Rosa (“No Red Indian’s gonna talk to me like that in my own house!”) is a smirking herald of the coming age of juvenile delinquency and civil disobedience. “I just saved a woman’s life,” the doctor wearily tells his soulless mate. “Saved it for what?” is her snappy comeback.
Here is where the countervailing up-lift of Hollywood wonderful-lifeism is designed to kick in. Yet despite all the disapproval the film directs toward Rosa, nothing in this folksy, cozy Capra corner of the world really rebuts her poisonous contempt. Perhaps because Loyalton’s one tiny blemish is that it is built around a pollution-belching mill that runs day and night, and after dark the sawdust flames turn the townscape into a glowing inferno—the citizens have to close the drapes to sleep at night. When Rosa swears she’d rather be dead than keep living there, silhouetted against the back- projected image of an industrialized hell-on-earth blazing away like Mount Doom, it tends to reinforce her position. She may be an indecent gargoyle devoid of human feeling, but she’s just about the only person in town with a lick of sense.
The Production Code made it certain Rosa would have to die a spectacular, pride-goeth-before-a-fall death, but Vidor cooked up such a protracted doozy that it undermines the “moral” it is supposed to be enforcing. She doesn’t simply expire contritely, but raises up from her deathbed, gets dressed, applies makeup, and goes lurching off to catch the 10 p.m. train to “that toddlin’ town” (with that very song on her lips). Keeling over on the side of the train, both dead and free at last, her final steps amount to a wicked victory lap: Chicago or die trying! This is what earned the film both its undeserved camp reputation and its nerve-jangling transgressive spurs—that queer note of fulfillment in the certainty that death beats domesticity and motherhood. I wonder if Beyond the Forest got away with certain themes because its sympathies were so muddled that the confusion served as camouflage. The monster has the last bitter laugh. Would Jack Warner have made this film bearing in mind the more informative (perchance admiring) title the French used, La Garce (“The Bitch”)? Or would anyone have touched it had Beyond the Forest exchanged names with a film that could be its spiritual descendant: Antichrist?