Film and Music critic Bill White has kindly responded to our request that he write a review of the film showing at the Colonial Theatre in 1949, as revealed in the Kodachrome night slide feature Westlake Night Lights in the Seattle Now and Then published just below this insertion.
An historical romance set during the reign of Charles II, “Forever Amber,” directed by Otto Preminger in 1947, is as dark and claustrophobic a look at society in collapse as any of the underworld-themed B-movies released during the same time. Two years later, Anthony Mann would accomplish something similar with “Reign of Terror,” although his film of the French revolution was a modest black and white production running less than 90 minutes, while “Forever Amber” was shot in Technicolor and ran nearly 2 ½ hours.
It wasn’t until Francis Coppola’s “The Godfather” that the interiors on a major studio film were underlit to such infernal effect. Cinematographer Leon Shamroy, who took the opposite approach the year before in “Leave Her to Heaven,” in which he contrasted the dark story with a brilliantly vibrant visual palette, makes the royal court of Charles II as ghoulishly oppressive as the decaying chambers of Roderick Usher. Although Shamroy won four Oscars for his cinematography, including one for “Leave Her to Heaven,” and was nominated for another eleven, he is largely forgotten today.
The story of Amber begins in 1644, during Cromwell’s rebellion against King Charles I, when the baby girl is discovered and taken in by one of the Puritans who later stands against the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, when Amber resists her foster father’s decision to marry her off to a neighboring farmer. He responds to her refusal by telling her that “vanity is Satan at work in the female soul.” Paradoxically, it is the vanity of the male sex that makes Amber’s tale such a miserable one.
As Bruce Carlton, the callous privateer whose love Amber is obsessed with securing, Cornell Wilde walks atilt with surety of his superiority to every other living thing, including King Charles, who banishes him to the sea when threatened by his sexual rivalry.
George Sanders is suitably disdainful as the king who can stop the performance of a play by his appearance in the royal box, but relies on a revolving cast of compliant female subjects to maintain the illusion of being loved. In the end, when he leaves Amber’s quarters after her final rejection of him as a man, he calls “come, my children,” to a pack of faithful dogs.
It is Linda Darnell’s voluptuously cheap incarnation of Amber that gives the film its poverty row atmosphere. She lowers the bar, just as Jennifer Jones did the previous year for David O. Selznick in “Duel in the Sun,” on any grand aspirations producer Darryl Zanuck might have had for a prestige film. It is because she drags the story into the gutter that gives “Forever Amber” its scent of damnation, and lifts it above the conventional drivel of those romantic melodramas commandeered by the crippling competence of a Bette Davis, Vivian Leigh, or Katherine Hepburn. The screen would not again be endowed with such a fleshy heroine until Elizabeth Taylor embodied Cleopatra in 1963, a film that was also produced at 20th Century Fox by Darryl Zanuck,
“Forever Amber” was one of the few films director Preminger didn’t produce himself, and evidence of Zanuck’s interference is all over it. This is one of the factors that make the film such a fascinating artifact. Although Preminger remained under contract to Fox for another five years, the name of Zanuck never again appeared on one of his films.