Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Forty-Two

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#42 — The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)

“I’ve got some unfinished business with him. I need him like the axe needs the turkey.” That bit of barbed dialogue is hardly unique within the cascade of knotty language that spilled from movie screens throughout the nineteen-forties. Roughly a generation after movies learned to talk, they’d mastered talking sharp and hard. Any number of offerings — especially comedies — cut like hacksaws, the crazy strong ones made for getting through metal. But few of his contemporaries could weld cynicism and downright meanness onto a script and still keep it paradoxically light and fun, primed for the inevitable pivot to the sort of happy (or at least happier) ending audiences craved, like Preston Sturges. The great filmmaker was still fairly early in his brief, brilliant directing career when he turned in his first truly masterful effort, The Lady Eve.

In a typically twisty plot (loosely based on a Monckton Hoffe story), a con artist named Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) points her viewfinder straight at beer company scion Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), certain that his pronounced naivete will make him the perfect target for a lucrative raiding of his family bank account. After some preliminary complications, Jean adopts the identity of Eve Sidwich, using her wiles to continually push her lanky prey into bumbling, sputtering states of lustful bafflement. The chief appeal of the film is watching Stanwyck take full charge of every moment she’s onscreen, portraying Jean as firmly in command and using every tool at her disposal, from her ever-whirring mind to the sultriness that wafts off of her like aroma off the artfully perfumed. And she teeters between malice and affection for Charles with aplomb, demonstrating that Stanwyck was one of the first Hollywood performers who mastered the ambivalence of evoking fiercely battling feelings in a single moment.

Then there is the comic voice of Sturges, itself a marvel of contradiction. Besides the mix of the caustic and caring, the filmmaker operates with instincts that manage to encompass the totality of film comedy up to that point. The script is rife with spectacularly insightful deployment of language, dialogue that smacks with keen intellect without becoming mired in overbearing verboseness, and it also makes room for sudden, clattering slapstick, sending Fonda’s character literally falling for this sardonic version of a femme fatale. For all its breadth of approach, The Lady Eve doesn’t bubble with ambition, pushily announcing itself as some grand expansion of the form. Instead, it has a clear ease, tagging it as a natural extension of its creator. This is, plain and simple, what a film should be.

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