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Carrie (1952)

There are two ways to watch William Wyler's Carrie (1952) — either as a lavishly produced Hollywood melodrama, or as an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's turn-of-the-century masterpiece Sister Carrie (the studio insisted on the elimination of "Sister" for fear moviegoers would figure it for a religious film and stay away in droves). If one is able to view it as the former, it's possible that this tragic tale might stand out as a harshly unsentimental departure from the de rigueur Tinseltown treatment of the genre. But that is only if one is able to shut out the majesty of Dreiser's epic of compromise, ascent, and misery, arguably the greatest novel of the 20th century — as tough and emotionally spare a document of American dreams as has ever been written. Wyler obviously respects the source material, remaining slavishly devoted to the narrative with few exceptions (until the very end, that is), but he can't help but lay on the embellishments of big Hollywood romance; ergo, Roland Anderson and Hal Pereira err on the side of elegant with their production design, Edith Head costumes with her typically detailed flair, and, most jarringly, David Raksin scores with a preponderance of strings, little discernible melody, and no subtlety. Submitting to the melodrama is difficult throughout, and matters are not helped by Jennifer Jones's too-perky-at-the-outset portrayal of the titular Missouri girl who climbs and ruins ashamedly, but avidly. Jones, an able, directable actress, is certainly alluring enough, and, in the beginning, that's all she needs to be to lure the wandering eye of the traveling masher, Drouet (a terrific Eddie Albert). But Jones's Carrie is already too aware, too worldly; she's doing a star turn when she needs to be acting. With the film's Carrie already blossomed, her transformation — one-half of the tale's tragedy — is complete. The film's emotional effectiveness therefore falls to Laurence Olivier's Hurstwood, and, as was often the case with the great Shakespearean actor, one has to wait for him to chisel away the character's affectations to get to the meaty core of feeling. In contrast to the novel, Olivier's Hurstwood is a warm but rather distant fellow; he conducts his interactions with his fellow man as if he has the rest of the world on a five-second delay. The sole exception to Hurstwood's aloofness is Carrie, who immediately penetrates his defenses by sheer virtue of her beauty the minute she walks into the restaurant which he manages. In Carrie, Hurstwood sees a lovely and innocent life-raft in the sea of marital discord in which he currently finds himself. Hurstwood is married to a shrill, socially conscious, independently wealthy hag (an appropriately cast Miriam Hopkins) who disapproves of Hurstwood's common profession, and lets him know it every night he returns from work. Carrie's lack of experience makes her seem like something to mold rather than exploit (as is Drouet's wont), and as Hurstwood draws closer to her, he becomes irrational enough to abandon his family, steal from his employer, and whisk the object of his affection off to New York City. It's here that the fortunes of the tale's two central characters change in inexorable, divergent fashion: the black mark of Hurstwood's crime rendering him unemployable and destitute, while Carrie's dilettantish dalliance in theater leads to steady work and, finally, stardom. Wyler rallies late in the film for a heartbreaking sequence (recently restored) in a homeless shelter, where Victor Milner's camera hovers over the caged ceilings of its various indigents before panning down toward a shockingly gaunt Hurstwood. Olivier piercingly conveys his character's misery, which should hit a gut-punching low in his final encounter with Carrie. But Wyler botches the penultimate scene by succumbing to his worst sentimental tendencies, turning what should be a remorseful tragedy into an unconvincing paean to sacrifice. As has been the case throughout, the spirit of the novel is ill-served. Paramount presents Carrie in a decent full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a source-print that is scratched at times, with good monaural Dolby Digital audio. No extras, keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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