This review was originally written in 2011 for DVDTalk.com.
This one is for the saps. And I say that as a card-carrying member, who types this with eyes still glassy from watching An Affair to Remember. It's a sappy movie, and it doesn't get any less sappy with age. Though, I must say, I think the older I get, the more I like it. I don't know if I am gathering a greater capacity for cheesy emotion instead of wisdom as I trundle on into the autumn of my years, but it's possible.
Immortalized as the ultimate chick flick in Nora Ephron's Sleepless in Seattle, this 1957 movie from writer/director Leo McCarey (The Awful Truth [review]) is apparently not supposed to appeal to members of my gender, but frankly, boys could learn an awful lot from Cary Grant's masculine example in this film. Grant plays Nickie Ferrante, last of the famous international playboys. When Nickie boards a transatlantic cruise to meet his fiancée (Neva Patterson) in New York, it makes the news programs around the world. Could the notorious gadabout really be settling down? Certainly his future wife's multimillion-dollar fortune is enticement even if love is not.
On the trip, Nickie meets Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr), a former nightclub singer also sailing to meet her fiancé (Richard Denning). Terry is devoted to the man who took her out of smoky bars in order to make her a proper woman, and so she easily rebuffs Nickie's charms. It's a new experience for him, and the lothario is flummoxed. The chemistry that exists between these two is one unlike anything they've felt before, and no matter how much they try to pull apart, they always end up right back together. After a sidetrip to meet Nickie's adoring grandmother (Cathleen Nesbitt) during a port stop, the two can't deny it any longer. They also can't deny that they are in a sticky situation as far as their mutual engagements, so they make a plan to take six months to disengage. Nickie, in particular, is going to break away from the old ways, take a shot at reviving his artistic aspirations and being a painter, and prove he can make his way in the world in order to be deserving of Terry's hand.
The pact the pair makes is the one Ephron famously borrowed for her Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle. In six months, at 5 p.m., if they are successful in their endeavors, Nickie and Terry will meet each other at the top of the Empire State Building and then go to be married. It takes approximately half of the movie to get to the point where the deal is struck, a seemingly lopsided structural decision, but one that is integral to making An Affair to Remember more than your typical sudsy romance.
In the first hour of the movie, Nickie and Terry really fall in love. I am not sure I fully appreciated how real their interactions on the ship come off in any of my prior viewings. McCarey doesn't go for any of the obvious tricks in bringing his lovers together, instead he exercises tremendous restraint. The whole of An Affair to Remember has an air of calm, and in that calm, McCarey is able to foment feelings of desire, longing, and eventually sadness just by letting the actors be themselves. Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr reportedly improvised a lot of their dialogue in the courtship scenes, and it shows. At times, they seem genuinely surprised at the things that come out of each other's mouth, and the natural interchange between the two makes for honest romantic yearning. You're not just going to believe they are in love with each other, but that they actually like one another, as well.
McCarey maintains this restraint through the entire picture, even when it would have been easy to go for the emotional jugular. The meeting at the Empire State Building doesn't go off as planned, for reasons I won't get into for those who may have never seen An Affair to Remember before. Suffice to say, there is plenty of pain and misunderstanding, and even though the audience is privy to more information than Nickie, there are some things that McCarey teases out slowly. The big revelation of how bad off Terry really is, in particular, could have been handled with far more fanfare. McCarey doesn't even turn up the score, letting the moment come silently, and cutting away as soon as he's sure we've figured it out. Clumsier films would have lingered, tried to tug our heartstrings with excessive force.
Instead, the director saves his biggest moments for the final scene, which itself is still played very carefully, isolated to one room, without the actors raising their voices or explaining too much. A heartfelt look will do far more than false words ever can, and the devastation on Cary Grant's face when the reality of the situation becomes clear is easily one of the actor's finest moments. It's when the tears hit my eyes, that's for sure.
So, call me a sap, I don't care. I've never been a closeted romantic, anyway. An Affair to Remember has outlasted all the scoffing it's gotten from the likes of you in the past, and it's gonna keep truckin' long after both of us have shuffled off this mortal coil. Maybe one day you'll wise up, and like Nickie Ferrante at the end of the movie, realize what a stinker you've been.
Then again, maybe not. Just because I'm a romantic doesn't mean I'm not also a realist.