About ten years ago, when I first got my screenwriting bug and became something of a film buff, I used to record almost every film on TV and became intimately acquainted with a lot of obscure movies. I still have a VHS collection of some 600 titles. It was about this time that I fell in love with a little known timeslip romance called Portrait of Jennie, and instantly installed it in my personal Top Ten. It pains me to say that, because I watched it again last night and discovered that it’s rubbish.
I watched it again because I’m preparing an article on my favourite time travel stories (yours to read here in the near future) as well as writing my own time travel drama series, so I thought I should reacquaint myself with it. After all, I haven’t watched it again since its inauguration in my Top Ten a decade ago and it surely can’t go the way of that other film that I discovered wasn’t half as good as I thought it was on second viewing, could it? (Jacques Demy’s Lola, since you ask).
What attracted me to Portrait of Jennie to begin with was that it was an intriguing story about a couple that conduct a relationship through some kind of timeslip. Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) is a starving and not very good artist in 1948 New York whose life (and career) changes for the better when he meets a mysterious girl, Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones), by chance in Central Park. Each time he meets her she appears older (growing miraculously from 12 to 20 in the space of a few months) and talks about people and events that happened in the 1920s.
What makes this film stand out is its side-stepping of all logic to immerse itself in a haunting, eerie and dream-like trance which affects the viewer as much as it seems to affect Eben himself. Hitchock cited it as his prime inspiration for Vertigo, and it’s obvious in the almost narcotic mood of the film, but also in specific shots: the Brooklyn Bridge establishing shot, Eben’s studio echoing Midge’s, and Eben climbing the lighthouse steps at the end (I also think Scott Rosenberg made a Jennie reference in his script for Beautiful Girls when he had Natalie Portman’s Marty character flirting with the much older main character while ice skating… but that might just be me reading too much into it).
The premise of Portrait of Jennie is great, and the cinematography by Joseph August (who died immediately after filming) is absolutely stunning, with some drop dead gorgeous shots of Jennie emerging or disappearing through the New York mist against a backdrop of distant skyscrapers, and a soft focus film noir lighting that has faces almost totally obscured by shadow in many scenes.
Visually it is beautiful, but what destroys this film is the score, and the clunky, overbearing voice over. The latter is florid, obvious and, above all, on the nose, which could be due to adaptitis, with what sound like whole paragraphs cut and pasted into the script as voice over, explaining everything… and nothing.
But it’s Dmitri Tiomkin’s bloated, fussy and intrusive score that really undermines everything. Bernard Herrmann was apparently hired and then replaced early on, which strikes me as a tragic decision by Selznik, because Herrmann is exactly the kind of composer this film needs. My guess is he would have sent half the orchestra home and had the remainder working part time, such is his use of subtle orchestration used sparingly to great effect. Tiomkin, though, is a film composer of the old school: he never shuts up. His score plasters every scene and drowns out the dialogue in a desperate attempt to semaphore the meaning behind every line. Ten minutes in and you want to take out a gun and shoot the fucker just to get some peace.
And these are what make Portrait of Jennie an interesting failure and nowhere near the kind of film that should be in anyone’s Top Ten (well, maybe David O. Selznik’s). I guess realising what a mistake I made with it is a sign that in the last ten years I’ve become much more film literate and certainly more adept at spotting a bad script (or a script mangled by a producer, in this case). Or maybe it’s a sign of me getting older and responding to different storytelling stimuli. I know enough about my shifting tastes to know that I could probably recant every word here in another ten years.
But for now, there’s a vacancy in that Top Ten and I’m looking around for a replacement.
An early draft screenplay is available online. It is free of the achingly pretentious prologue and doesn’t have nearly as much voice over; a sure sign that it was added in post production at Selznik’s behest.
There are a few interesting reviews of Portrait of Jennie online, some containing screen caps:
One of the landscape shots of New York from the film opens this review of the book Celluloid Skyline.