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A gorgeous classic without a plot! Stick that in your pipe.
on January 7, 2011
How can a movie be fascinating without a plot? Watch The Sun Also Rises and you'll find out. I admire the courage of the filmmakers for their faithfulness to Hemingway's work, which was a challenge to translate for the screen. The novel is really a slice of life in which character study takes precedence over story. This is about the so-called "lost" generation of people who try without success to find some meaning in their lives after the horrors of the First World War. As a theme, it has enormous relevance even today.
If you dissect this film, what you have is one scene, the same scene, repeated over and over and over: The actors order drinks, smoke cigarettes, and engage in witty dialogue. In an outdoor café, in a restaurant, in a bar, in an apartment, in a hotel, in Paris, in Pamplona, in ... are you getting the picture? But don't despair, this is an absolutely fascinating movie despite the fact that nothing really happens. How can that be? First, Hemingway's characters are interesting as hell. Second, Henry King was a brilliant director and put his stamp on every aspect of this production. Third, the Cinemascope photography of Paris and Spain (or Mexico) is staggering. The scenes in Paris during the first part of the film made me want to get on an airplane. And fourth, these were superb film actors at the top of their form.
Tyrone Power was a highly underrated actor. In this film he has one of the most difficult roles for any actor, playing a character who is depressed all the time. Actors like to play active motivations. Playing depressed is about as difficult as it can get for an actor and Power is superb in playing dour without losing his natural charm. Mel Ferrer is perfectly cast as the droopy Robert Cohn, who is both likeable and hateful. Juliette Greco positively jumps off the screen in a small part at the beginning of the film. Even the way she says a single word, yes, is exciting. Eddie Albert, another underrated actor, is great in a part that would have confounded a lesser actor. The real surprise is Errol Flynn, appearing here in a character role at the end of his career and short life. He is hysterical as a drunk among drunks (they are all drunk) and steals every scene he's in. During the bull running scenes in Pamplona, Flynn and Albert are wonderful at the kind of physical comedy that Peter Sellers would have admired. I even liked Robert Evans' portrayal of a Spanish bullfighter and don't understand why everyone makes fun of his acting.
But the heart of the film is stolen by another underrated actor, Ava Gardner, who gives the performance of a lifetime as the disturbed Lady Brett Ashley. Gardner nails every aspect of this complicated personality and in most scenes she is able to convey an incredible variety of emotional states. I loved one scene in the Cafe Select in which she switches from wild abandon to serious concern and back again in a matter of seconds. And on top of it all, she is drop dead gorgeous as few actresses have ever been. Even her own dissipation as she approached middle age works for the part. What a pleasure to watch her in this movie! I find it bizarre that, in one of the special features, some hack critic suggests that Gardner was miscast.
At the end of The Sun Also Rises, I found myself saying, "So what the hell just happened?" I'm not entirely certain, but it simply makes me want to watch it over and over. This is a truly great film.