Magnificent Obsessions is a new column featuring close readings by our resident formal analyst Veronica Fitzpatrick. Each month, she’ll take a bite-size snapshot of a cinematic moment summoned by the issue’s theme: this is love as scrutiny.
We last saw them escaping from her husband’s house in Rio. They lock him out of the car, leaving him to explain to the concerned Nazi cohort how his wife’s American friend managed to call the hospital without a phone. Full of poison and barely coherent, Alicia still smiles dreamily when Devlin rolls up the window, soothed by the prospect of leaving a whole life behind as easily as pulling the car away.
A fat decade after their pairing in Hitchcock’s 1946 espionage romance Notorious, Stanley Donen reunited Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant for Indiscreet in 1958, a London-set comedy about a catch with a catch. Established theater actor Anna Kalman (Bergman) falls for prominent economist Philip Adams (Grant), who’s technically married—separated in perpetuity. Well into their affair, we learn a beat ahead of Anna that Philip isn’t married, he’s simply a resolved bachelor exploiting the solidity of marriage-as-excuse.
So Indiscreet inherits more than its casting from the earlier film. Built around social rather than state surveillance, it too is a spy movie, in which Anna and Philip sew distance and decorum into their relationship, chatting on the phone at night in Pillow Talk-y split screen and enacting weekend inseparability under the guise of friendship. Both films focus on the tension between what’s expected—which figures, to varying degrees, as duty—and what’s desired. Both necessitate speaking and behaving in code. Both are even named for a quality of Bergman’s characters: In Notorious, Alicia is a drunk crop-topped socialite who spends the film attempting to transcend her base reputation; in Indiscreet, she plays a grown-ass woman (self-described early on as “over 21”) who knowingly prioritizes love over propriety.
But amid the similarities, a key difference: Notorious traffics in impossibility. What would it mean to marry off the woman you love for national security, and to pretend to be unaffected by what’s literally and emotionally killing you? There’s no way out of that mess, until there is. Indiscreet dwells in the possible. Based on its goofy premise, you expect the film to mimic a Shakespearean farce or an I Love Lucy episode: the couple comes together, one uncovers the other’s deception, and a revenge plot develops and dissolves. Instead, Donen’s film savors the time before revelation. Though the truth will out, and heads do nearly roll, Indiscreet takes its time with the proverbial honeymoon period, rushing instead through the retreat and advance, as if the film itself is reluctant to divide the pair and eager to quicken their reunion.
In the lingering, we’re made to see that time travel isn’t only applicable to movement between distinct points on a line. It can encompass the manipulation of duration, or a challenge posed to finitude. Or how a movie can make the good part last forever. When circumstances dictate there’s never enough time, the most urgent itinerary may resist movement altogether, searching instead for ways to stay.
We meet Anna fixing a glass of milk. She’s alone, her aloneness underlined by her seat at the kitchen’s eat-in banquette, a literal table for two set for one. Home mid-holiday, she left Mallorca because she couldn’t get the beautiful men to say anything. She’s familiar with, and even inured to, the loneliness of being clever and discerning, conditions her sister Margaret sees as willful impediments to future happiness. Margaret arrives on the scene with her husband, Alfred, and abruptly—as such a man’s arrival could only ever be sudden—Cary Grant as Philip looms in the doorway, framed like a pinstriped mirage. “The door was open,” he says.
Figuratively speaking, it wasn’t. Anna is mid-cold cream application when Philip materializes, all 6 feet 2 inches of him, bronze as any statue in Spain. But a few moments of modest banter persuade her to join them all at dinner, where Philip’s “hard currency” keynote speech occasions a delightful turning of tables: the famous thespian playing audience member, applauding her new crush.
Back at the flat, Margaret maneuvers Alfred into leaving so Philip may stay. It’s the musical chairs of rides home from the Valley in Clueless—itself based on the meddling of Austen’s Emma Woodhouse—but here, the logistical contortions are warranted. As in Notorious, Bergman and Grant find themselves left in a compromising situation, the potential of which their characters are seasoned enough to recognize. When Philip reveals his (fake) marital status, Anna smiles through profound disappointment; she closes the door on it, only to reconsider, rushing to reach him via a call to the building’s front desk. It’s not too late. He’s not off the elevator yet. In the 1958 analogue of a 3:00 a.m. text, she makes a date with him anyway, leaving her hand on the cradled receiver for seconds before turning off the lights.
The morning of their date, Anna’s apartment is flush with yellow roses, and because I just watched it I can’t help thinking of Countess Olenska’s bouquets in The Age of Innocence—“too rich, too strong, in their fiery beauty.” Not selected as a token of friendship, but a tell, hot and extra. Likewise, Anna and Philip’s night is a study of just-contained heat. They discuss the unseasonably warm weather. They dine alone in a private club. They lose track of time, give up their ballet seats and return to the restaurant, where, two desperate coffees later, they silently agree to leave on foot.
We see them walking at a moon landing’s pace across the city and along the Thames, where Anna’s awareness of being followed—which they are, at a cautious distance by her driver and less subtly by fans eager for her autograph—recalls Bergman’s glacial smiles in Notorious’ infamous party scene. At one moment, she and Philip dip out of view, down the riverside steps at Cleopatra’s Needle. The camera pulls back to show a young couple descending the neighboring stair. When we cut to a closer shot of the couple fawning over Anna, Philip has sprung back, pushing a free hand into his pocket.
Desire looks for places to be private, but when privacy isn’t an option, proximity will do.
The emotional anchor of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is its elevator scene. The Driver (Ryan Gosling), to this point laconic, rides his building’s elevator with his love interest neighbor Irene and an armed henchman. Once he assesses the situation, the camera cuts to a spatially impossible position, holding the three in profile to show the Driver’s hand swimming up in slow motion to corral Irene into the back corner. The lights dim, leaving only the gold glow of the car’s deco sconce. He faces her, palms her waist. Synthesizers swell. They kiss, slower than slow, his torso lifting and torquing with the force of implied breath. Some of this kiss we don’t even see, as Gosling’s quilted shoulder blocks her face entirely before drawing back in line. But we can imagine every microsecond. It’s the kiss you practice on pillows. It’s the longing for an erotic time-out that 15 year-old Angela articulates so obliviously in the pilot of My So-Called Life, calling Anne Frank lucky for being “trapped in an attic for three years with this guy she really liked.”
Over 50 years earlier, Indiscreet delivers the paragon of elevator intimacy in Philip and Anna’s ride upstairs. It’s the end of their evening, and Philip’s asked to walk her in, but when Anna steps into the car itself, he follows. Here, too, the camera recedes into limitless space to make room for them—but not much, so the effect is claustrophobic but willingly so, like the vinyl listening booth in Before Sunrise where no one knows where to look.
Richard Bennett’s score replaces any dialogue, climbing in loops as Anna and Philip stand facing each other, staring openly for the first time. The elevator’s attendant is just visible in the corner, his mute back to us and to them. Floors pass beyond the frosted glass, and Anna and Philip just look. Their throats move. They don’t blink. Even in profile, the heat in Bergman’s eyes is unembarrassedly intense. As the car slows to a stop, Anna’s lips part. The doors open an astounding 33 seconds after they closed; a lifetime compared to the already tense 12-second ride they shared the night before, but not long enough. When she turns to exit, Philip is still watching her face. London may be an overstaffed restaurant, a gauntlet of adoring fans and curious border control. Here, liminal, suspended between floors, everything is left to imagination. Nothing said leaves nothing to overhear.
We follow Philip following Anna out of the elevator, his black back moving down the carpeted steps to her door. At the threshold they pause, her cheerful apartment visible in the depth of space between them. “Would you like to come in for a drink?” She asks. Philip answers without hesitation or even punctuation, a three-syllable falling pitch more conclusive than the film’s actual ending: YesIwould. They enter, and the camera pulls back from the door as the hallway fades to black.
The good date is elliptical. One sweaty wine bottle dissolving into another as shots fade in and out of endless conversation. Sustained from their arrival in Anna’s lobby to their disappearance through her open door—as if the camera is afraid to speak first—the long take is a prayer against morning. Indiscreet is packed with examples of Anna and Philip explicitly together as lovers, kissing on a balcony with the future spread before them flat as the sea. Back in the elevator, before they’re made to grapple with the fine print, they’re just two people astounded that the other exists, with the sense they might never get off at their respective floors, not ready to call it a night. Not yet.