“Why not put out the lights when there is nothing more to be seen?”
To the extent that it likewise seems to follow a bare-bones series of points of plot, Julien Duvivier’s Anna Karenina, produced by Alexander Korda, seems more a remake of Clarence Brown’s 1935 film than a new film version of Lev Tolstoi’s both massive and nuanced 1875-77 book, perhaps the greatest novel ever written. While neither film possesses the philosophical breadth of Tolstoi’s achievement, however, Duvivier’s film is a thematically unified piece of work, which Brown’s film is not. Rather than the 1948 British film, it is Brown’s—the one from Hollywood—that does a better job of anticipating British television’s unsearching Masterpiece Theater.
Actually, Brown’s famous film starring Greta Garbo in a memorable performance (best actress, New York critics) is itself a remake, of the silent Love, also starring Garbo and directed by Brown. Their later version restores Anna’s suicidal fate, replacing the happy ending of the 1927 film. It is Duvivier’s version, though, that gets the optimal visual impact out of killer trains. Anna’s slippage into insanity right before she goes under the train, the result of being denied, she believes, her lover’s love and her certainly being denied by her spiteful, social status- and career-minded bureaucratic spouse access to their young son, seamlessly makes her death just one more step along the way at the depot: the coming to fruition of the train’s taking someone else’s life near the beginning of the film. Duvivier achieves turbulent poetry by having the trains in both instances—symbolically, the one train: fate—moving inexorably toward the camera, at the last providing the illusion of its taking down Anna. A ripple of prophecy accompanies Duvivier’s film, but not Brown’s: the end of the Tsarist Russia to which both Anna and her husband, Alexei, belong. Duvivier’s visual élan at this juncture, as at every other throughout the film, owes a great deal to the dark, dreamy black-and-white cinematography of Henri Alëkan (Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, 1946; Wenders’ Wings of Desire, 1987).
Historical fate as well as personal fate, then, is at work here. But fate of either kind is a topic, a subject, not the theme to which I earlier referred as giving Duvivier’s film a unity that Brown’s (because of Garbo) more celebrated version lacks. Let me spell out Duvivier’s theme, to which Jean Anouilh, who helped write the script (along with Duvivier and Guy Morgan), may have significantly contributed: the extent to which both men in Anna’s life, her lover, Count Vronsky, and her spouse (Ralph Richardson, expert), believe in their own rationalizations, the delusional nature of which they unconsciously enrobe Anna in, spiritually and mentally suffocating her. Vronsky’s assurances to Anna that his love for her continues unabated after he has left the military and run away with her thus ring alarmingly hollow to her, as she apprehends the truth; and, by the same token, Karenin cannot grasp his own viciousness regarding Anna, which he hides even from his own view with his insistence on political ambitiousness and the “best interests” of his son. In a masterstroke of self-deception, Alexei Karenin at some point declares that noble motives of his regarding his wife’s adultery have replaced his prior motive of vengefulness. He believes this! Thus Duvivier’s film, whatever its considerable faults, lays a bit of claim to Tolstoi’s astute and monumental grasp of human behavior.
Vivien Leigh plays Anna with charm, sensitivity and subtly parching allure; but it is an Anna by way of her Scarlett O’Hara. However much Richardson’s Karenin exceeds Basil Rathbone’s villainous Karenin, I much prefer Brown’s version because of its star and because Fredric March’s credible Vronsky even more greatly exceeds Kieron Moore’s inept Vronsky for Duvivier. The selfishness of the lovers becomes “part of the picture” in the case of Clarence Brown’s Anna Karenina; but it is a major irritant in the case of Duvivier’s, where it is stridently targeted, perhaps as a means of “balancing out” Karenin’s machinations. Petulant Leigh is adorable; Garbo, peerless. Just her presence brings to the material a unity all its own.