THE MACOMBER AFFAIR: IT’S A JUNGLE OUT THERE
“And you’re a coward.”
Ouch! Our Hollywood-American movies have such a strong moral code: THE BAD MUST PAY. And bad women must pay…dearly. Whether the law metes out justice for our deeds or what’s in our hearts ( The Postman Always Rings Twice, A Place In the Sun ), the Moral Code in movies is inescapable and apparently, essential. It runs through our American cinema, literature and souls like an artery to the heart.
I was stunned by The Macomber Affair. I first saw it at the 2012 TCM Film Festival and it stayed with me throughout the rest of the festival. Now, I might not have the right words to describe how I feel about this movie ( my heart is so much more eloquent than my brain ), but here are the words I managed to pull from my heart’s brain:
Hemingway gives us the story of the disintegration of a marriage by using the safari as subtext. Funny, but this marriage is over long before any lions come on the scene. Gregory Peck plays the great white hunter, Robert Wilson. The movie’s story unfolds in a flashback which plays out as Wilson thinks of what to put in the police report. I like the inexorability flashbacks give to events. No going off the beaten track. No forks in the road. What happens happens. You’re riding this trolley to the end. ( The Locket uses flashbacks very differently. )
But the one danger with flashbacks is how does the narrator really know what goes on in the privacy of a married couple’s pup tent. Already the story’s telling gets a little shaky. When The Macomber Affair begins we don’t know anything…
Except that a man is dead. Wilson sorts out the events in his mind for his report.
MY MACOMBER IS SPOILED – IT WAS SITTING IN THE HOT AFRICAN SUN WITHOUT A HAT! SPOILERS AHEAD
Marriage is a partnership of love, support, desire and respect. ( You can prioritize the order of these qualities as you see fit. ) The Macombers look good on paper. They are an attractive, successful and wealthy couple. ( Hey, safaris ain’t cheap. ) They have that good-natured ‘Nick & Nora’ repartee thing going on in the beginning. When Wilson compliments Macomber on his attractive wife:
MR. MACOMBER: “Wilson, you don’t know what it does to a man’s ego to constantly be reminded he’s married to a beautiful woman.”
MRS. MACOMBER: “Usually what it does to yours darling, air does to a balloon.”
Things start off well amongst the three of them. Francis Macomber is confident and deferentially concedes to Wilson, willing to learn from his safari guide. I liked the details of safariing; the talks of the types of guns and all the verbal attention to details. My guess is the attention to details is due to Hemingway’s passion for hunting. I liked the aplomb and believability Peck delivers as though this La Jolla, California native was to the safari born. Macomber is so boyishly cute as the African air and the thrill of the kill rekindles his attraction to his wife:
“I believe I’m in love with you again.”
Maybe there was a touch of hero worship from Macomber to Wilson. I’d say there is definitely an attraction between Wilson and Margaret Macomber. I think the flirtation is somewhat harmless; maybe part of the whole travel package of the safari – the charm Wilson thinks wives expect out there in the jungle while their husbands prove their manhood against lions and tigers and impalas, oh my! I like how Wilson calls Margaret “a beautiful sensation.”
But when things go down hill, they go down like a water buffalo.
During the hunt for the big game, we see that Wilson has some rules about fair play and sportmanship. One of them is you don’t shoot an animal from a moving jeep. It just isn’t sporting. When the tail a lion, and the lion turns and charges them, Macomber runs. I audibly gasped when I saw that. Yes the human survival instinct kicked in and he was getting the hell out of Dodge, and I could understand that…sort of. I mean, he played like he was the big man on campus.
We all want our men to be great white hunters. Okay, some of us want the sensitive, egg-head, Leslie Howard / Alan Alda-types. But the rest of us 95.3752% want our men to be brave and heroic; to protect us whether we’re in the jungle or in the supermarket; the heartlands or midtown. I was really in shock. But more importantly, seeing this chilled me to the core:
Margaret sees her husband run. The look on her face was devastating. As he sheepishly walks back to the jeep, I literally said to myself: “Dude, you should have let that lion kill you because now you’re in trouble.”
What, have you not witnessed Joan Bennett’s disdain on screen? It’s a thing of beauty…from the safe distance of a balcony seat. It’s colder than the glaciers in the Arctic. It cuts through icebergs ( and your heart ) like a laser beam. I’m a little more scared of her than I am of Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck when she lashes out. And Francis Macomber is about to get a tongue lashing. I was expecting this movie to be a good old-fashioned love- triangle. Not this. His running turns the movie on its head and into a different direction.
When Wilson and Macomber get back into the truck, Margaret kisses Wilson full on the lips in front of her husband. WHOA! What a ballsy move!!! What a slap in the face. Again I was in shock. Where is this movie going? There is an an attraction and probably an affair, though we don’t see any explicit evidence of that. Margaret really plays up to Wilson now, but he’s not entirely comfortable with her flaunting it:
WILSON: “Say, you wouldn’t mind dropping my beauty as a topic.”
MARGARET: “I just started.”
WILSON: “Let’s chuck it.”
Joan Bennett as Margaret Macomber was wonderfully horribly contemptuous. At first I liked it because I love Lethal Ladies and felt she was justified. But then I became unhappy with her bullying and needling him mercilessly. She hated him and hated that he made her feel this way; and I get that. But Robert Preston’s performance made me change my mind. He did a fantastic job as a man shamed; shamed in front of his wife, shamed in front of another man. My heart broke for him. He wasn’t really a blowhard. He seemed like an average guy when he says:
“What about my wife? She’ll look at me like a rabbit for the rest of my life.”
He sulks. He’s figuratively impotent.
I still do harbor a bit of marvel at Margaret’s smiling disdain. I rationalize ( ‘she has her reasons’ ) because she’s risen in my esteem because of Bennett’s understated acting. But how does one come back from shame. What he liked and admired about everything at the beginning of the safari, Macomber now hates and loathes. And his loathing extends to Wilson. Macomber’s already beating himself up. Now his wife nails his impotency to the wall like one of those stuffed animal heads.
MACOMBER: “You think I’ll take anything, don’t you?!”
MARGARET: “I know you will, Sweet!”
Bulls eye. Game. Set. MATCH. Stick a fork in him, he’s done.
Francis has to take his frustrations out on someone. He’s impotent with Margaret and won’t challenge the Alpha Male Wilson. So he beats up the servant. Doing that makes him look small. Good solid job by Earl Smith as Kongoni, Wilson’s right-hand man on the safari. I really liked the healthy respect Wilson and Kongoni had for each other. There was a team work with them, not subserviency or condescension. That was not a good moment for Macomber but I understood it.
Wilson is very even-handed about these events. He doesn’t coddle or wet nurse Macomber, but he’s not judgmental of him either. He wants Margaret too, but I was surprised and warmed to see Wilson support and encourage Macomber; like a big brother, not a rival. He’s seen this before, and probably part of his job is the well-being of the client. He doesn’t want them feeling bad about themselves. He wants Macomber to get a back bone with Margo: “…order her not to go.” My feminist dander raised for a hot second, but then I calmed my “I-am-woman-hear-me-roar” self down. He’s trying to build up Macomber’s confidence. He doesn’t really want Francis broken. The thought crossed my mind that Wilson wanted Macomber strong if he were going to fight to get his wife. It was some code of ethics for Wilson. The same way he would never shoot an animal from the jeep b’cuz he had unfair advantage, he wanted to fight a man, not a wimp. There’s a code to stealing another man’s wife fair and square.
Wilson guides Macomber to getting his confidence back with hunting more game. I thought to myself: “…listen Francis, you may get your confidence back…but you’ll never be able to touch Margaret again.” But you know what, I don’t think he wants her back now. I fairly cheer for Francis when he tells her:
“Without you’re knowing it, you’ve always wanted me as a mouse. Well now you’re going to have to get used to me as a man.”
Well good for him!
And now even Wilson sees that Margaret is really being a beeyotch. Seems like he and Macomber are kind of bonding now (much to Margo’s chagrin). They’re not exactly Spanky & Alfafa in the “He-Man Woman-Haters’ Club” but their growing mutual respect is evident.
THE COUP DE GRACE
History repeats itself and while on the hunt, a wild animal comes charging at Wilson and Macomber. Margaret grabs her rifle and shoots from the jeep. She misses and kills her husband. Does she or does she not do this on purpose? What was in her heart?
An investigation must be done to get the full story. And Wilson wants some answers of his own.
I empathize with all three main characters in The Macomber Affair. A wife stuck in a marriage that doesn’t work for her anymore. A husband who’s a big man in the boardroom, but not where it counts. A Safari guide who has a code of ethics that gets in the way of what he wants. But there is one more person: Jean Gillie as barmaid Aimee. Gillie ( of film noir’s Decoy fame sadly dies of pneumonia at 33, shortly after making The Macomber Affair ) makes quite an impression in her brief appearance. She simmers and smolders with a low husky voice. Sure Aimee and Wilson had a fling. He took it for what it was…and she fell in love. As Aimee, she speaks volumes about her relationship with Wilson without saying much. She knows the fate of things to come.
“A woman would do things a man would never dream of doing. I’d murder for a man I was crazy about.”
They also serve who only stand and wait. And an African safari might be a better place to work out the kinks in your relationship than a therapist’s office.
[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://sittinonabackyardfence.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/553062_10201689603311708_562410915_n.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Born and raised in New York City, this baby boomer Capricorn has loved movies, television and making up stories for as long as she can remember. A graduate of NYC’s Hunter College, Theresa has three screenplays under her belt, one of which: “The Right Girl” she has directed into a film that was screened in film festivals in N.Y., San Francisco, London and Berlin. She’s also appeared on the Turner Classic Movies channel as a guest fan programmer, alongside host Robert Osborne, during its 15th year celebration on air. Her most recent project is her web-series “Meg Ramsey” which she has written and directed for two seasons.[/author_info] [/author]
Born and raised in New York City, this baby boomer Capricorn has loved movies, television and making up stories for as long as she can remember. A graduate of NYC's Hunter College, Theresa has three screenplays under her belt, one of which: "The Right Girl" she has directed into a film that was screened in film festivals in N.Y., San Francisco, London and Berlin. She's also appeared on the Turner Classic Movies channel as a guest fan programmer, alongside host Robert Osborne, during its 15th year celebration on air. Her most recent project is her web-series "Meg Ramsey" which she has written and directed for two seasons.