Back Street

Back Street

D: David Miller (1961); with Susan Hayward, John Gavin, Reginald Gardiner, Natalie Schaefer. A typically lush Ross Hunter/Fanny Hurst gusher with Miss Hayward as Rae Smith, an aspiring young fashion designer who keeps coincidentally running into Captain Paul Saxon, played by the Ross Hunter staple, Gavin, also known as the poor man's Rock Hudson. He rescues her from sexual harassment at a job interview, and she is eternally grateful. So grateful that they fall deeply in love and everything is fabulous, except for the niggling little detail that Captain Saxon is already married. Hayward, who by 1961 was a little old to be playing an aspiring young designer, is her usual incandescent self, at turns bubbling with excitement or tortured by lamentations. She certainly does her best with Miss Hurst's tawdry, but dated, story. Miss Hurst, the Jacqueline Susann of her day, does not write in a fashion that bears close scrutiny, and the story is full of missed connections, lost messages, and an assortment of things that could have been avoided if everyone had had cell phones, call waiting, and e-mail. Rae is devastated by finding out that she's "the other woman" but channels her energy into becoming a world-famous designer overnight. The drunken socialite of a wife, faultlessly played by Vera Miles, refuses to let her husband have a divorce, but Saxon is smitten with Rae and will let nothing come between them. He follows her to Rome, where she runs a couture salon and unloads his sad tale of woe upon her. Cut to waves crashing on the beach.

But the real action occurs at the requisite fashion show. Held as a benefit charity auction, this show was meant to be Rae's crowning achievement at the pivotal moment in her career. When the bridal gown comes down the runway, the drunken shrew of a wife bids furiously on the dress, drawing unpleasant attention to herself and causing much consternation. The situation becomes untenable, and Saxon decides that the only way to end the pain he has caused Rae is to kill his wife. He chooses a car accident, and of course we understand that the risk will be just as great for him. The wife dies, and Saxon survives -- but only long enough to phone Rae and tell her he loves her. By the time he croaks, you, the viewer, are presumably on your fifth Kleenex. But the best part of the death scene (in which Hunter and Hurst excel), is that it signals the end of the movie.

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