THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED (Garson Kanin, 1940)

Harry Stradling’s gorgeous, moody black-and-white cinematography lends poetic touches to the third film version of Sidney Howard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1924 play, They Knew What They Wanted, directed by Garson Kanin as a memorial tribute to Howard. The title is ironical; the three main characters—wealthy Italian immigrant, Napa Valley ranch owner Tony Patucci, waitress Amy Peters, and Joe, Tony’s foreman and best friend—only think they know what they want; humanity is self-divided, ambivalent. People are open here to unlikely possibilities, including sea-changes, and they direct their fates in ways hidden from themselves and others, and contrary to their announced motives. Lonely amongst his fields of grapes, Tony proposes marriage, through the mail, to Amy, who caught his eye in the San Francisco restaurant where she works; but, drunk and showing off, he manipulates the postponement of his wedding by falling off a roof and breaking both his legs. He is testing Amy’s capacity to love him for real. Money is Amy’s sole motive in marrying overweight, older Tony; but his openness and kindness win her over and compel, first, loyalty and then, when her passion for Joe proves irresistible, guilt—retroactively, guilt also for her original mercenary impulse. His reputation as womanizer, in contrast to Tony’s touted virtue, spurs Joe’s disloyalty to his friend. Joe, who impregnates Amy, is testing the limits of his lack of virtue. He seeks redemption.
     With such intelligence, how does the film become so hopelessly at loose ends?
     Carole Lombard is brilliantly intense as Amy, Charles Laughton apishly naïve as Tony, and William Gargan a(n Oscar-nominated) cipher as Joe. The worst performance is given, however, by Barbara Stanwyck’s infamous ex, Frank Fay, as a perverted priest who can’t keep his nose out of people’s sexual business.

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