The Talk of the Town (1942)

Directed by George Stevens

This is a movie that mixes romantic-comedy and thriller, though the emphasis would be more on the former. But because The Talk of the Town mixes the two, it falters a bit. But not a lot.

It begins smartly by establishing itself with quick, mostly non-dialogue scenes. A factory burns, a man dies in the fire. Arson is the cause, and Leopold Dilg is arrested (Cary Grant with an unlikely name). It’s a rush to justice; Dilg’s guilt is a foregone conclusion.

The factory owner has the town stirred up against Dilg and everyone is calling for an execution.

Dilg, with no seeming choice, escapes prison.

Cary Grant as Leopold Dilg - nabbed by the Law.

He flees to a house where Nora (“the prettiest girl in town”) is preparing for a tenant. She hides Dilg in the attic. The tenant, the very straight-laced and famous law professor Michael Lightcap (Ronald Coleman) arrives early and Nora is in a fix – what to do with Dilg?

Up to the moment the scene shifts to the house and Nora (Jean Arthur, hair done up and shaded a light brunette here), the movie is very dramatic. While it’s quick and very well done, the shots of a brooding Cary Grant somehow don’t work.

In fact, through the whole film Grant somehow doesn’t seem quite right when playing the brooding part.

This may be less his performance than baggage brought from other roles (pre-conceptions of the Grant character), but it doesn’t seem quite right. He’s best when he finally steps out of the shadows and starts engaging both Nora and the Professor in banter.

Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur), Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant) and Professor Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman).

The story of the film is how the three main characters work to get to the truth of things and prove Dilg’s innocence. The real story, though, is how Nora and Leopold loosen up the Professor, and the conflict Nora has with whom she loves. She loves both men – who will she end up with?

In fact, this movie is really Jean Arthur’s movie, and she is wonderful in it, even if she is playing the Jean Arthur character – pretty self-assured till she’s in a fix, then a bit scrambled.

The best performance, though, may come from Ronald Coleman. His tight-bummed Professor, and the arc he follows to loosen up, is excellent. He plays serious perfectly, while also playing innocence without any false notes.

Leopold Dilg behind bars (Cary Grant).

Overall, The Talk of the Town is a very good romantic comedy, though somewhat overlong. It works best when focused on its comedic aspects and seems to lose itself when veering off for a moment or two to be serious.

I think director George Stevens may have been trying to comment to some extent on mob justice, and the rule of law.

However, as in his movie Shane (and generally any film that has a message), all this does is bog the movie down with earnestness. It becomes an appeal to the head rather than the heart.

Films tend to operate best viscerally.

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