Keeper Of The Flame, 1942. 6/10

This is an ambitious attempt to combine a murder mystery with a wartime anti-fascist story. Stephen O’Malley’s (Spencer Tracy) tries to tie both themes together by investigating the populist leader Robert Forrest’s household after his death. The assortment of odd-ball characters add a lot to the plot, and keep the suspense humming along for most of the movie.

We’ve got Forrest’s secretary, groundskeeper, cousin, not to mention his mother and even his wife (Katherine Hepburn’s Christine) as suspects. The cab driver has tossed a few coins into the fountain as well–who wouldn’t like a character named Orion Peabody? I agree with the reviewers who feels that the movie works pretty much as a folk or gothic tale: mansions, accidents/murders, remote settings, and meandering plots playing out in the dark. However, things start out briskly. We’re set up with a montage of Forrest’s proto-fascist events, the embryonic Hitler Youth-style group of earnest teenagers, and Steve’s quest to get at the recent widow to land his big story, all sprinkled wth the authentic gaggle of fellow journalists, particularly Jane (Audrey Christie) as his wing-man (woman).

Steve, though, basically bulldozers his way to the story; notably just walking into both Christine’s and her mother-in-law’s (Margaret Wycherly’s) houses. It would be better if he were a detective or government agent. Although he’s stalled or rebuffed here and there, he soon assumes the role of an old family friend or distant relation; that is, one who might not be favored, but cannot just be sent packing. Why should Christine agree to help him after her rather feeble resistance? It makes sense that she’d want to expose his fascist intent, or, on a more wifely level, his infidelity with the groundskeeper’s daughter. But, hasn’t she caused his death by withholding knowledge that would have prevented his accident? How come she isn’t made to account for this?

What happens is that the anti-fascist theme blots out the murder mystery. In other words, her actions are presented as self-evidently justified. If Steve had been the law, maybe she’s arrested for manslaughter, but then a jury decides that the crime was justified. That’s a more consistent way to show the inherent power in the rule of law against taking the law in your own hands. The two themes started out complimenting each other, but, unfortunately, we get stuck with Christine’s ‘speech’ which takes us out of the theatre, so to speak, and into the classroom. The political theme could’ve been shown, had there been more scenes with the youth group, and maybe have Robert as an actual character, with flashbacks to color-in his populist appeal. Instead, the movie just ceases to entertain when it lectures.

Actually, the content of her ‘speech’ is very well-written; the sympathy for the common German places the blame squarely on the influence of fascism; it made more sense to find some sort of explanation for the war other than expecting the public to simply hate Germans. This, however, is what you might expect from a newsreel from the front. Keeper Of The Flame makes a strong political message dramatically without this billboard put up

The other issue was that Steve and Christine are neither likeable characters, nor show much liking for each other. As someone else aptly said in their review, this is “a flabby Jane Eyre.” When the minor characters are the only interesting ones, there’s something wrong. Still, this is entertaining; especially the first part, and for some of the atmospheric touches–it’s great when a thunderstorm strikes up just as old Mrs. Forrester starts going on about Robert and the family. Worth watching, but ultimately kind of disappointing. 6/10.

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