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Just Give Me That Old Time Religion

By Ted Boynton | Boozehound Cinephile | April 16, 2009 |

By Ted Boynton | Boozehound Cinephile | April 16, 2009 |

Pop Culture Item Consumed: Indiscreet, the brilliant Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman comic romance directed by Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain, Arabesque). Indiscreet, released in 1958, features one of the most beautifully mature movie star pairings imaginable: 55-year-old Cary Grant, entering a rich career home stretch that included North by Northwest (1959) and That Touch of Mink (1962); and 43-year-old Ingrid Bergman, who adopted an older appearance for Indiscreet to match up better with Grant. (Grant was sensitive enough about such things that he required a re-write of the script for Charade to make the romantic angle with Audrey Hepburn less obnoxious.) Grant and Bergman play slightly graying career-first singles who finally meet the right romantic match, if they can stop fencing long enough to realize it.

Beverage Consumed: The champagne cocktail, an effervescent variant on the old glass of bubbly that provides the perfect blend of fizz, spice, sweetness, and punch for this picture. Cheap brandy is an abomination, but there’s no need to break out the Courvoisier only to drown it in sparkling wine, and likewise, there’s no need for top-shelf champagne. The sugar and bitters do enough of the work, and the brandy lends enough foundation, that any decent sparkling wine will do the trick. Note that the sugar cube is critical for attaining the proper visual effect, meaning that one should not substitute bar syrup.

To prepare a champagne cocktail, place a sugar cube in a champagne flute with at least a six ounce capacity. A white wine glass works fine; the key is a relatively narrow glass restricting the rate of de-carbonation, which is the purpose of champagne flutes in the first place. Dampen the sugar cube with several splashes of Angostura bitters, then carefully pour about an ounce of decent brandy (a little less than a shot) into the flute. For the final step, top the glass with champagne. Do not stir, as part of the beauty of the champagne cocktail is the slow fizz that occurs when the champagne penetrates the brandy to the sugar cube, resulting in a faint column of whitish bubbles as the sugar cube dissolves in carbonation. Because of the shape of the flute, the champagne and brandy will mix as one sips.

The champagne cocktail tastes elegant and refined, the brandy delivering a bracing undercurrent to the fizzy, pungent topnotes of the champagne and bitters. As with most drinks, various interpretations exist, and some recipes call only for champagne, a sugar cube, and bitters, with no brandy. The true champagne cocktail contains brandy, however; otherwise, referring to this drink as a champagne cocktail is a misnomer, considering that it contains no spirits. One might as well throw an egg and a splash of Tabasco in a beer and declaring it a “beer cocktail.” While it is true that Merriam-Webster advises that a cocktail can include “a drink of wine … mixed with flavoring ingredients,” I’m advising Merriam-Webster to stick to dusty old books with words like “lepidoptera” and “epistemology.”

Summary of Action: When the Godtopus, in Its infinite wisdom, birthed the Cinema Squid, thereby gifting Man with motion pictures, the Godtopus allowed that a finite number of perfect movies might exist on the physical plane. As the First Age of Cinema drew to a close in the 1970s, ten perfect movies had emerged from the firmament. While scholars have argued and debated over which ten are The Ten, no one doubts that Indiscreet is among them.

Cary Grant plays Philip Adams, a dashing United States diplomat assigned to a trade envoy post in Paris. Because of his position, Philip travels to London frequently to visit his colleague, British diplomat Alfred Munson (Cecil Parker). During one such visit, Alfred and his wife Margaret introduce Adams to Margaret’s close friend Anna Kalman (Bergman), a successful theater actress in a long-running London play. Anna accompanies them to a state dinner, and Philip and Anna get along swimmingly, a perfect match of urbane wit and sophistication, with one small hitch: Philip’s marriage. As Philip tells Anna, he long ago separated from his wife but explains to Anna that, because of 1950s social strictures, “I’m married, and can’t possibly get a divorce.”

The twist, revealed early in the movie, sets up the delicious dramatic conflict between Philip and Anna. Philip discloses to Alfred that Philip isn’t married at all — he simply values his bachelor status and has learned from experience that he can’t stay in any relationship for long without the woman expecting marriage, ultimately resulting in a break-up when Philip refuses. As Philip notes, even women who initially accept his insistence on remaining single eventually become unhappy, souring the relationship. His supposedly foolproof solution is to tell his paramours that he is unhappily but permanently married, so that they will either refuse to continue with him or accept the status quo. Having accepted Philip’s ostensible marital status at face value, Anna later learns the secret from Margaret. Her fury over Philip’s deception gives rise to some choice lines — “How dare he make love to me and not be a married man!” — and Anna proceeds to plan her revenge.

Without doubt, Indiscreet shows its age a little in its underlying concept, beginning with its un-PC take on women’s views of marriage, a common thread in comic romances of the 1950s and 60s. The idea that a wealthy, glamorous actress would obsess over her boyfriend’s bachelor status may seem a bit outdated, though there’s plenty of evidence out there that the old stereotypes have some grounding in truth, at least for a large segment of the population, even today. Still, it’s difficult to imagine modern, sophisticated folks getting into such a twizzle over someone’s desire to remain unmarried. Perhaps more on-point are the challenges of concealing one’s marital status for a substantial period of time in the age of internet searches of public records. To some extent, however, these anachronisms make Indiscreet that much sweeter and more enjoyable, in the same way that the noble suffering and tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold themes in Casablanca stand up to today’s cynical audiences.

More’s to the point, however, Indiscreet simply proves yet again that great acting, crackling writing and deft direction never go out of style. If one can accept the basic set-up without scoffing, Indiscreet offers many treasures, beginning with a witty, charming screenplay that provides ample opportunities for three delightful romantic couples to match wits for the viewer’s enjoyment. Aside from the titans in the lead roles, the husband-wife interactions between Alfred and Margaret, who are alternately intrigued and horrified by their role in the Philip/Anna conflict, are smartly written and played with effortless verve by Cecil Parker and Phyllis Calvert, two old pros with scores of film and television credits to their name when Indiscreet was made. Anna’s live-in housekeeper and chauffeur, also played by two consummate professionals, figure prominently in the plot and dialogue as well, helping to set up various scenes and providing context for the genuine sweetness of Anna, but also delivering nicely on their banter and one-liners.

The essence of Indiscreet, however, is Stanley Donen’s wonderfully light touch in directing two pantheon-level movie stars at the height of their powers. By 1958, the elemental, fresh-faced Ingrid Bergman of Casablanca had given way to a wise, knowing beauty with a self-assurance borne of her own scandalous personal life. Bergman in her early 40s, self-confident in the fully ripened bloom of radiant womanhood, provides the perfect match for the Cary Grant of our dreams: a charming, dashing man completely matured and utterly at ease with himself, the grey at his temples a litmus of the grace afforded by decades of experience. Indiscreet provides a wealth of scenes for Grant and Bergman to flex their dramatic muscle and flash their comedic timing and touch. For his part, Donen, despite a deep resumé that already included four or five classics, refrained from overtly directorial touches, knowing just when to flick the reins lightly to keep the story moving, and never pausing for self-indulgent congratulations over sheer fabulosity of the whole thing.

How Well the Pairing Held Up: A perfect match, light and elegant yet assured and complex enough to mix things up a bit.

Tastes Like: Two parts Cary Grant’s intoxicating élan, two parts Ingrid Bergman’s unparalleled golden chic, spiced and sweetened with liberal dashes of marital bitters and domestic sugar.

Overall Rating: Armagnac meets Dom Perignon.

Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected].