I think I O.D.d on William Wyler last month and I’m still getting my strength back.
Recently I engaged in an, ultimately foolhardy, piece of hedonism — watching as many William Wyler films as I could physically manage in a week. He was a filmmaker I’d only known up until last year as that guy who made ‘Ben Hur’ (1959), a film that felt like being in Sunday School only three times as long even if Stephen Boyd does get mashed to a pulp. Was there more to Wyler than this biblical epic?
Turns out yes and big time because even though elements of his work could be described as stately he had a real knack for getting deep into the dirt-covered roots of human psychology. Film such as ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ (1946), ‘The Heiress’ (1949), ‘Dodsworth’ (1936), ‘The Collector’ (1965), ‘Wuthering Heights (1939) and ‘The Big Country’ (1958) all have an aching sense of maturity and sensitivity regarding the human condition. Even his “lighter” fare such as ‘Funny Girl’ (1968) contain a strong empathy for the character’s feelings, as well as the fact Wyler knew how to make his films look good without showing off too much. I was having an absolute blast finally discovering his movies. More, please!
And then I hit ‘The Little Foxes’ (1941) and something happened. I’m not sure what exactly but watching the movie I felt uncomfortable, suffocating, gasping for breath. It was like being trapped in Tupperware. It also felt oddly sluggish, like having a heart-attack in slow motion.
It turns out this is all entirely appropriate as ‘The Little Foxes’ is one bitter and nasty film. It concerns a rich Southern family and their various squabbles over money and power. Bette Davis plays Regina Giddens, the ruler of the clan, but since this is a time where only males are considered legitimate heirs she is in a constant battle with her greedy brothers. Not only that but Regina is reliant on her seriously ill husband for money, something that does not sit well with her.
The brothers have a business proposition for their sister you see, as they need $75,000 to finalise plans on a cotton mill. They approach Regina with the proposal where she’ll loan them the money in return for a share in the business, but the deal is flatly turned down by husband Horace. Still, Horace has a bad heart and needs looking after and I’m sure Regina is the perfect wife to provide her husband with loving, tender care so that he might live a long and happy life… right?
Davis’ Regina might seem a little like ‘Gone With The Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara — a strong-willed daughter of a Southern family looking to retain control of the family estate — but good god, Scarlett might’ve been flaky and flighty but she was nowhere near being the malicious bitch Davis’ Regina is! I think this accounted for my inability to breath as whenever she was on screen I empathised with her husband, and I’m still not sure I’ve fully recovered.
The other striking aspect of ‘The Little Foxes’ is the aspect of light, both physically and psychologically. Greg Toland was the cinematographer and his work here is stunning, although there seems to be less shadows at play here and more light filling the screen as though the lack of darkness gives the madness nowhere to hide. This is emphasied by Davis’ Regina who, at one point, enters a room and turns on the light as though demanding brutal clarity by everyone. It’s something I’ve noticed characters do sometimes in Wyler’s films — switching on a light as though to get it all out in the open and clear the room and the mind of skulking shadows so that any skulking can be done in the open. I guess that’s one benefit of binging on Wyler; you get to notice his quirks.
Again, this adds to the sensation of being hermetically sealed, something we would normally consider light doing the opposite of. It allows us to see the poison flowing with greater lucidity and nowhere is the poison so lucid as when Regina helps her husband up the stairs like the loving wife she is. It’s a shocking and remarkable moment that drips with spite and viciousness.
‘The Little Foxes’ feels like hands invisible at the throat. Guard your grapes well and these little foxes are out to get them.