Betsy Blair—she was Hester, the withdrawn young mental patient in The Snake Pit (Anatole Litvak, 1948)—was blacklisted in Hollywood following her appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee. As a result, she got her celebrated role as shy, plain Clara in Marty (Delbert Mann, 1955), for which she won best actress at Cannes, only after then-husband Gene Kelly threatened to pull out of M-G-M musicals if she didn’t get it. (Blair’s subsequent marriage to Karel Reisz lasted forty years, until his death.) Her Clara was intended as a point of reference for her similar, more remarkable role as Isabel in writer-director Juan Antonio Bardem’s Calle Mayor (Main Street; The Lovemaker), from a play by Carlos Arniches.
Isabel, a spinster, becomes the target of a loutish, idle male prank in a provincial Spanish town; Juan, who has just arrived from Madrid, is induced by a bunch of idiots to pretend to fall in love with her. She, however, reciprocates with genuine love. Juan accumulates a burden of guilt that eventually pushes him to the brink of suicide; when she learns the truth, Isabel is left bereft—for the rest of her life, the conclusive shot implies.
Bardem’s film recalls elements of William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949), based on Henry James’s story “Washington Square,” and René Clair’s Les grandes manoeuvres (1955), whose basic situation it reverses, because the young officer, passing through a provincial town, falls in love for real with the woman, newly arrived from Paris, he wagers he will seduce, but who proudly destroys both their hearts when she discovers his original cold-hearted scheme and rebuffs him. Subsequently, Nancy Savoca’s unfairly overlooked Dogfight (1991) told a similar story, replacing the impending First World War in Clair’s (wonderful) film with the U.S. war in Vietnam.
In a prologue, calm male voiceover assures the audience that the story about to begin could happen at anytime, anywhere. One sees through this, however. The male heartlessness on display is intended as commentary on Franco’s Spain, with Juan’s connection to Madrid expanding the target beyond the provinces to include, implicitly, the whole of Spain. The “new” Spanish male, vicious and morally lethargic, mimics Spain’s leader, with one traditional element, a culture saturated with religion, contributing to the hypocrisy of such ungentlemanly behavior.
There is such a wealth of great cinema here! Throughout, Bardem employs expressive long-shots, both indoors and out on the street, that set relatively tiny persons against vast edifices, brilliantly encapsulating the fate of individualism in the sort of strongman-dictated state that Spain had become. With superlative agility and sheer virtuosity, Bardem alternates back and forth between objective and subjective shots as Isabel, having learned about the “romantic” plot against her, exits the grand ballroom awaiting the dance that night—a place to which it is likely she will never return. That closing shot: the camera’s eye looking in through the window as Isabel peers out, perpetually waiting for the happiness that in all probability will never come, a downpour striking the glass, causing her tears to disappear amidst the sight of so much rain: a brutalized lonely soul’s dissociation, perhaps schizophrenia. The shot recalls an exquisite one of Katharine Hepburn in George Stevens’s Alice Adams (1935), from Tarkington; but whereas Hepburn’s Alice still had most of the film to journey through, with a happy Hollywood ending eventually drying her tears, Bardem’s Isabel is stuck, with nowhere else to go.
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