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TSPDT 2013: Man’s Castle

Posted by martinteller on April 5, 2013

Bill (Spencer Tracy) is sitting on a park bench one night in his fancy tuxedo, feeding the pigeons.  He meets Trina (Loretta Young), who tells him she hasn’t eaten in two days.  He takes her to a fine restaurant and after she eats, to Trina’s surprise, he tells the manager he hasn’t got a dime.  The tuxedo, you see, is just an advertising gimmick (it lights up with the name of a coffee brand) he wears to earn a few extra bucks.  Bill is homeless, just like her.  He takes her to a shantytown.  Soon the two are involved with each other.  Trina’s wildly devoted to Bill, but he’s a “bindle-stiff”, a drifter.  He won’t be tied down, and he’s fond of reminding her that any day he might be gone.

This is a most unusual film.  Tracy pours on his usual gruff charm, but with a lot more gruff in the mix.  He’s constantly insulting Young, and telling her that he’s liable to dump her at any moment, or punch her in the nose.  He doesn’t make these remarks with violence or malice… it’s very matter-of-fact, in fact it’s almost playful banter.  But he’s far from a lovable tramp.  Borzage’s romanticism is put to the test in this relationship, leaving you conflicted about how you want things to turn out.  Do we want that transformative power of love to triumph and make Bill a better man?  Or would Trina be better off letting him leave?  I still don’t know how I feel about the ending, but that’s one of the things that makes the film interesting.

Another thing that makes it interesting is the cinematography.  Borzage’s soft focus is in full effect, with warm lighting that follows Young even into the grim surroundings of the My Man Godfrey-esque camp.  There’s a running motif with a hole cut out of the ceiling of their shack — Bill can’t stand to sleep under a roof.  In one scene, he gazes up and sees birds flying across the sky, enjoying their freedom to indulge the wanderlust he carries in his heart.  Then he looks at their new stove, tying him down with monthly payments.  He looks at Trina, as if weighing the options.  He looks to the sky again, and the birds have passed.  Train whistles are also prominent throughout the film, ever signaling a threat to Trina’s hold on Bill.

The use of process shots is interesting as well.  They’re blatantly fake, to the point where people are looking at the camera and appear much larger than the stars.  Now, maybe this is merely poor technique, but the effect is to isolate the protagonists from society.  They’re in their own little world, part of a forgotten and ignored population.  While the movie doesn’t strive to be a comment on Depression-era troubles, it doesn’t shy away from making a few points about them.

A strange sort of romance, but very watchable and sometimes quite beautiful.  Young is radiant and endearing, Tracy turns in a complex performance.  Rating: Very Good (83)

IMDb
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