Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding / U.S., 1939):

Bette Davis’s frisky sprint sets the pace, the breathless forward thrust and darting turns of a socialite fleeing from the center of her life. A cloud soon parks over the pleasure-seeker, the blurry visions in the middle of her horse rides and the tumble down the stairs can’t be brushed off: "Confidentially, darling, this is more than a hangover," she blithely tells her friend (Geraldine Fitzgerald) between cigarette puffs. Edmund Goulding’s camera keeps pace with the spoiled heroine’s giddiness, and then frames a great moment of stillness -- Davis in close-up profile, forced into awareness of mortality as the physician (George Brent) offers a laundry list of the symptoms she’s been trying to hold at bay. Brain surgery only buys Davis a bit more time, Brent and Fitzgerald conceal the truth to spare her the pain; "prognosis negative" leaps at Davis from the pages of reports, the words fester within her and are hurled like daggers at her friends. The gentlemen’s club becomes the dying woman’s preferred arena of livid joyriding/self-abasement, her near-affairs encompass a soused fop (Ronald Reagan) and an anachronistically brooding ("I guess I was born out of my time...") Irish stable hand (Humphrey Bogart, whose dry Brontëan lampoon seems to have eluded everybody). Davis eventually ditches salons for an idyllic New England cottage by Brent’s side, the challenge is to face the darkness "beautifully and finely." ("We just pretend that nothing’s going to happen," says the doc, summarizing the secret to a successful marriage.) Goulding’s sharp and delicate alternations of mood guide the diva toward the remarkable from-garden-to-deathbed home stretch, where Davis, a serene pale flame, delivers her own last rites and embraces the finality of Max Steiner's orchestra and an out-of-focus lens. With Cora Witherspoon and Henry Travers. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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