At 136 minutes, Mervyn LeRoy’s low-key Home Before Dark, about a woman back home after she is released from a mental hospital, probably requires a bottle of good unblended scotch to navigate and get through; but it’s largely absorbing, attractively wintry gray (the black-and-white cinematography is by Joseph Biroc), and beautifully acted by Jean Simmons in a complex, richly textured performance that may be her finest.
Charlotte Bronn, in her mid-twenties, suffered a mental breakdown, convinced that her husband, Arnold, and her stepsister, Joan, whom she has idolized since childhood, were having an affair. At hospital she accepted that her suspicions were a delusion, but now, home again, she is mistrustful again and backsliding into insanity.
Charlotte Bronn’s name suggests the extent to which Eileen Bassing’s novel, which Bassing herself (along with Robert Bassing) co-adapted, is a cockeyed variation on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The basic plot also suggests elements of Rachel Field’s novel And Now Tomorrow, with deafness rather than mental illness in play, and which became a film directed by Irving Pichel (1944)—with this exception: in LeRoy’s film there is no romantic infidelity; Arnold Bronn may be disenchanted with Charlotte, but he hasn’t strayed, much less become a melodramatic partner in treachery aimed against her. What fascinates as much as anything in Home Before Dark is the interior battle that Charlotte wages to regain and retain her mental health. Strengthening this effort is her double realization of the state of her marriage: her husband no longer loves her; her stepsister, knowing this, is scheming to corral Arnold for her own. Charlotte must divorce herself from her tendency to emulate Joan, who really is a kind of enemy: someone who by drawing her idolatry since childhood has obstructed her ability to “become herself.” Charlotte’s fight to achieve self-realization is the crux and summit of Simmons’s exquisite characterization, and the mirror-opposite of her stunning Ophelia’s (Hamlet, Laurence Olivier, 1948) “giving up.”
LeRoy has given Home Before Dark an appealing fineness, perhaps to contrast it with the theatrical blatancy of his enormously popular The Bad Seed (1956). However, there are things about it that dismay me. I don’t like the condescending convenience of Jacob Diamond, the college English professor who by offering Charlotte a romantic alternative to Arnold obscures the thrilling battleground of her fight for stability. I also wonder at an allegedly Jewish character that gets so worked up over Christmas. Jake, like the Jewish boy in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (Delbert Mann, 1960), is Jewish in name only: a reflection of the extent to which Jews remained “outsiders” to the American mainstream even as the U.S. approached the New Frontier.
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