Review – EASY LIVING (Jacques Tourneur, 1949, USA)

Easy Living posterFrancesco Totti, the beloved captain of Italian soccer team Roma, admitted he was afraid upon retiring from professional football during his recent farewell speech before his last game. This candid admission humanized the sport and shed a light on the vulnerability of the aging sports star that sees his career come to an end with an entire life still left ahead of him and not a notion of how to handle it not being able to do what he loved best and what he was so good at. This very real dilemma is seldom discussed in real life and, much less, in movies, which is perhaps why so many, in criticizing Easy Living by Jacques Tourneur, overlooked this aspect in favour of a more obvious reading of the film as a critique of the ambition of women. Perhaps it is because sports, in movies, are more often than not treated in quite a different way.

In Easy Living, Pete Wilson (Victor Mature) is an American football star who cannot come to terms with his impending retirement. After a merciless snapshot shows him in pain during a public practice session makes the front page of newspapers and covers of sports magazines, his luck begins to turn for the worse: he discovers a debilitating heart-condition; his game is no good; friends turn against him; and his wife’s behaviour leads him to lose that coaching job he would otherwise have landed after his retirement. Indeed, his wife Liza (Lizabeth Scott) has ambitions of her own and rather than caring for her husband and providing him with the support he needs at this difficult time, she seduces the wealthy and powerful man (Art Baker) in order to convince him to finance her career as an interior designer.

Tourneur makes the most of all dramatic situation provided by the story: event after event builds up to a psychologically dense portrayal of a lost man falling apart and losing all the privileges and status that he once had. This culminates in a final confrontation during which Wilson must choose whether to gamble with his life in order to play one more match and have one more chance to be the hero.

However, Tourneur is not only interested in the narrative: he also wants to construct a down-to-earth portrayal of the sports world through a depiction of an American football sports team as any other working class establishment. In this establishment, the players are right at the bottom (the working class). Players come and go, careers are ended in an instant. They may end as a result of injury; in Wilson’s case, it is a heart condition, a situation beyond his control, that puts an end to it. Throughout the film, players do get injured, and careers are constantly threatened. Few make the big bucks; however, for most, the American dreams remains nothing but a dream. Furthermore, those who make it may be knocked off the top at any given moment. Some players don’t make it and are sent home packing. The filmmaker makes sure to pay attention to conversations about life savings, tragic downfalls, and people starting anew in the countryside. These are conversations that may simply be overheard, in astonishing sequences shot in a style that predates Robert Altman’s by decades.

As in most of the other works by Tourneur, the men of Easy Living are from Mars and the women are from Venus. Men speak a universal language, often absurd, that appears to be understood by them alone. This male universe not only overcomes class differences but also racial segregation: this may appear to be the only reason for the inclusion of a black player in an all-white team near the end of the movie (unseen for the rest of the feature, not unusually for classic cinema). Women, if not submitted to the patriarchal order and respectful of gender roles, are shown as threatening and dangerous. Liza is the embodiment of this danger. She is a gold-digger and a constant source of pain for Wilson. But to say that she represents the entire female universe is to ignore the character of Anne (Lucille Ball), the secretary of team owner and coach Lenahan (Lloyd Nolan). Anne looks after the “boys” and is “one of the guys,” but she is also a woman, who happens to be in love with Wilson. In a revealing monologue, after she picks up Wilson who has passed out drunk at a bar, she tells him that she too was hurt by a man before, but didn’t let it get to her.

Anne is an independent woman, but her independence flourished out of dignity and respect: there is no doubt that the film exposes the patriarchy with a distance that may lead one to think it dominated by a male gaze, but what actually appears to be questioned is morality in the matter of female emancipation. The scene in which Wilson slaps Liza is strangely liberating not because it is a scene establishing male dominance, but because Liza is a despicable human being who deserves to be spanked.

Chris Fujiwara called Easy Living a minor work in Tourneur’s oeuvre. The acting is superb. Victor Mature is perfectly cast as Wilson. His imposing and physical figure makes his vulnerability seem unusual, which makes it all the more harrowing: he is a like a kind-hearted (and handsome) Frankenstein monster. Scott is terrific; she is the film’s beautiful femme fatale, with Lauren Bacall’s raspy voice, but a charisma all of her own. Ball, a few years before she became television’s beloved Lucy, shows skills as both a comedienne in the comic relief moments (most of which come from her) and as a serious player; the latter side is especially revealed by the aforementioned monologue.

Despite the easy criticism, Easy Living is far from dated. It is, on the other hand, quite exciting to read from a contemporary viewpoint, as with many of the French director’s works because they invite for an understanding of them as lacking a sense of self-righteous manipulation. There is no repression in Tourneur’s films: he shows things as they are (or, as they were in America at the time of production and still remain widely unchanged, especially as far as the patriarchal system is concerned), not as they should be. He dares to frustrate viewer expectations through unexpected moments of realism that defy conventional filmmaking. The truth of his films is in their apparent imperfections, for they often represent the imperfections of society as a whole. Easy Living is a forgotten and overlooked film, but may just be one of Tourneur’s best. – ★★★★★

EASY LIVING | 1949, USA | Drama | Directed by – Jacques Tourneur / Produced by – Robert Sparks / Written by – Irwin Shaw, Charles Schnee / Music by – Roy Webb / Cinematography – Harry J. Wild / Edited by – Frederic Knudtson / Starring – Victor Mature, Lucille Ball, Lizabeth Scott | Running time: 77 mins.

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