A Filmmaker's Review: "Dark Victory" (1939)
5/5 - One of Bette Davis's best performances...
“Dark Victory” (1939) is a film you do not come across too often because the storyline is just so twisted. I remember sitting there thinking if this could potentially happen in real life and honestly, it could. In this film, Bette Davis stars as a beautiful young woman who falls from a horse, faints down the stairs and comes up very sick and, after falling in love with her doctor they decide to marry. When Bette Davis’s character is receiving treatment, the doctor tells her she is all better and by this time, they are engaged. Whilst a party ensues, the best friend of the bride-to-be notices something is uneasy and starts to question every single thing that the doctor is doing, she is rightfully concerned that her best friend is all of a sudden doing fine instead of having a sickness she was suffering so badly with. Once the gears start turning, the engaged woman discovers something absolutely horrifying and yet, cannot bring herself to tell anyone - just yet.
This is Bette Davis as her finest. Portraying a character of divine quality - she is all at the same time: wealthy and classy, sick and depressed, angry and paranoid and especially so, she is a character betrayed by trust and hindsight. This film displays that there is no question about why she is commonly referred to as one of the top five greatest actresses of all time. She has become synonymous with acting techniques that, to this day, even the masterful likes of female method actors cannot match in their talent. Her depth of emotion is displayed far past her delivery of script but, as the story twists and turns, the very body language of her character changes with it, to become part of the story - she manipulates the audience’s perspective on the character perfectly to suit each moment in the storyline with the fight scene being the most manipulative. One of the scenes displays a fight in a restaurant, or more like an argument between her character and her fiancee. This is manipulative because in this moment we do not know whether we truly like her character for this moment of overreacting and yet, we are almost right back to liking her again afterwards. It is a strange scene because it is almost at the climax at the film in which we begin to question our alliance to certain characters and their morals.
My favourite scene in the whole film is probably the part where she is helping her fiancee to pack to leave and then she states that she is not going to go with him. By this time, the audience is made to believe everything is fixed and everything is fine, the ending will come next and that we will know all about what has happened between them. Bette Davis manipulates this as displaying her character as upright and appearing happy. In contrast, her character is actually still very upset, depressed and yet, she has found peace with herself. What this scene actually is seems to be the final nail in the coffin of revenge that her character has against her fiancee for lying to her (referring back to the scene from the restaurant in which the argument happens). This is such a manipulative scene because even though there is a lot of dramatic irony in the fact that we know what happens to her character but her fiancee does not, and yet we cannot bring ourselves to think anymore that this is going to play out since she is behaving in a way that would completely opposite to what would be happening at the ending. It happens anyway and the fiancee is not there to witness it. The final nail in a coffin of absolute revenge.
I found this film so very exciting even though it was a slow paced masterpiece of acting by Bette Davis. She displayed such an incredible range of emotion and her pace matched the film absolutely perfectly. I think that this film is one of her most underrated performances. Oh, and if you like Humphrey Bogart, I think you’ll be surprised we get a visit from him once or twice too.