Dir. Daniel Mann. Starring Shirley Booth, Burt Lancaster, Terry Moore
I’m not an alcoholic, and if there have been alcoholics in my life I couldn’t name them. I couldn’t say whether or not it’s likely that an alcoholic’s first bender in a year would end in him brandishing a knife at his wife, although one leans toward “not.” The denouement of Come Back, Little Sheba is explosive, hanging on to the seriousness of the story by Shirley Booth’s fingernails; “He’s got a knife!” shouldn’t work, but there is real terror in Booth’s voice which slices through some of the silliness of a boozy Burt Lancaster brandishing a kitchen machete. What I love about this movie is that there’s so little about it that’s explosive. In movies based on Inge screenplays, which I usually like more than I respect, those explosive moments are so frequently overshadowed by quieter, and better, ones. It has to start to end somehow, but what a shame it is to give the husband a knife, a move which really does seem more like reefer madness than the travails of alcoholism. (There is zero attempt to keep that knife subtextual, incidentally…Mann and James Wong Howe capture a shadow of that thing exactly on top of Lancaster’s personal cutlass just totally without shame. It was that cutlass that got them into this situation so many years ago, and for a few moments it is at least possible that the knife might be what ends their sad, sad marriage.)
Put the bottle down for a moment, though, and the heart of the movie comes clearly into focus. Doc’s alcoholism is the story’s leverage, but the marriage, one where the bottom is out of the tub, is what matters. From the first, Come Back, Little Sheba is a movie which tries to stanch an artery of despair, and the tourniquet which the Delaneys have applied is pure politeness, like they’ve just fought a few days ago and they’re trying to make it up, or like they’re modeling amiability for a sociopath. Doc more or less makes breakfast for himself, while Lola bustles about so much that one could be fooled into believing that she’s done anything at all. Lola’s breathy, nasal chattering is in total opposition to his curtness with word-final syllables; he is prim in a vest, while she wears a bathrobe at all hours of the day that looks like it escaped from a history museum. (Booth is acting up a storm in her first scenes opposite Moore’s Marie, so much so that it’s almost a little confusing in the wake of what happens later. In that first scene it seems like she’s desperate to get a boarder in, which is not on its own a contradiction of the absolute need for company that she has, but which is traditionally not quite the same thing.) She is proud of the way he’s sought out help for his alcoholism at AA, is present to see him blow out the candle on his “birthday” there. Her diction is not up to Doc’s standard, and while the movie never comes out and says that Doc went out of his social class for Lola, it’s clear in the way they talk, his educational record, and the hint of an inheritance that he drank away. Sooner than I expected the movie delves into the history which brought them together in the first place. Doc impregnated Lola; they married; Lola miscarried; they’re still here. Come Back, Little Sheba is a movie in which the principals make the best of it, one of those terrible phrases that one hopes never to use about oneself, and how making the best of it shows the seams stitching them into a marriage they cannot leave. Every time Doc makes his own breakfast, it is a tacit rebuke to a wife who cannot adequately do what a ’50s wife ought to be doing; their next-door neighbor, Mrs. Coffman (Lisa Golm) says as much, advising her layabout neighbor to “keep busy” with something. Lola knows, but is too childlike to take the criticism to heart the first time. Marie and Turk (Richard Jaeckel) catch her one afternoon dancing badly to something on the radio instead of making lunch for Doc, who she knows is coming home at noon. He gets cottage cheese from the icebox, which he’s amenable to, and still she must understand that she has been found wanting by the code of the ’50s housewife, a code enforced by everyone except her polite, distant husband.
I can’t overstate how much despair there is in this movie, how much is bubbling up to the top, like oil seepage. Lola points us to it. That shuffling gait, the way she goes downstairs, the white walls, the ugliness of that bathrobe, the way she sinks into the bed as she shows off the mattress, the pleading conversation with Marie. It takes only seconds, but you can feel it in the movie so totally, intense without excessive signifiers, as elegant as that thing John Updike said about aiming for that spot a little east of Kansas. It’s all there, all before we even see Doc, who must be more full of despair than anyone else in the picture, but who keeps it inside until the booze brings it out like a gusher. Come Back, Little Sheba has maybe the worst title I’ve ever seen on a movie, but that itself highlights an event in Lola’s life which has only worsened her loneliness. Sheba is a dog who ran away, who has been gone for months, who is probably dead, and who Lola brings up frequently to Doc in the hopes that he’ll assure her that Sheba will come back. Or, in an entirely artless way, if Doc will fill the void in her life for companionship that Sheba had. When Lola does plead her case with Doc, she is so pitiful and wanting and pure that we have to believe that she doesn’t entirely know what she’s doing when she talks about Sheba, or when she calls her husband “Daddy” three times in two sentences, or when she begs for validation. A person starving to death is not likely to use their knife and fork if they come across food.
The relationship between Doc and Marie is deeply curious, and perhaps odd enough that Turk even calls attention to it. Lola is perfectly happy to have Turk in the house just to have the company, and of course likes that Marie likes him, and likes that he’s a track and field star from the local college. Doc, presumably recognizing something from his past in Turk’s unsavory and purely physical advances with Marie, gives him the cold shoulder from the first; Doc is as plainspoken with Lola about how much he dislikes Turk as he is about anything else before his bender. Turk, perhaps recognizing his future self, wonders if the old man isn’t harboring a little crush on his pretty young boarder. Marie doesn’t think so—they lost a child, she said, and they treat me like I’m a replacement daughter. (Then again, I can’t unhear something Marie tells Turk: “Doc’s a real nice, quiet man. If he likes running his fingers through my hair, well, why not?” It takes so much bravery to just drop that into a conversation and leave it there, because it is such a boldly simple statement that one immediately begins grasping for ways that the literal meaning isn’t the best one. Is it metaphorical? Do fathers frequently just run their fingers through their daughters’ hair? Is this an inherently romantic thing to do? Is Marie hypothesizing? It is impossible to know, most of all because it never comes up again in the movie.) Marie is probably more right than Turk, but Turk is not wrong that Doc is absolutely jealous about Marie. He walks with her to the corner one morning, and he does not like leaving her to her own generation. He shows significantly more concern for her wellbeing than for Lola’s. Most of all, there’s the look on his face when he meets Marie, when he makes a total about face on his statement to his wife that the Delaneys don’t rent out rooms. There is tremendous softness behind his eyes, but there’s also real aggression as he stalks about downstairs while Marie and Turk sneak into her room late one night, an ambivalence between wanting to rush in and pull them apart and the knowledge that doing so would be entirely inappropriate.
For years now I’ve wondered about how one makes a movie based on a play into something more cinematic than theatrical, and in Come Back, Little Sheba, there’s something near to a solution presented. This is a small set, as the movie rarely steps outside the boundaries of the Delaney house; even going down the road or into the backyard feels like a foray that ought to come with a covered wagon. But it’s a set that doesn’t feel like a stage with a bigger budget, and the reason why lies with James Wong Howe. This is Daniel Mann’s first picture as a director, and while Mann’s direction is good, it’s Howe’s cinematography that stands out, amplifying the movie’s best moments. (This sounds like hyperbole, and chalk up as much of this to the thrill of seeing something in the moment as you want, but Come Back, Little Sheba reminded me of another director’s feature debut that’s probably best remembered for the work of its superman DP: Citizen Kane.) Howe makes this small house feel like a building instead of a set, and the cinematography singlehandedly raises this above the “filmed play” aspect that dogs so many adaptations. The intimacy of his shadows is stunning. On stage, surely Marie can be shrouded in shadows after she kicks Turk out and weeps for the tawdriness of the situation, but it takes a close-up in those shadows to let us see the shame in her face (her presumed fiance is coming soon!) and the regret that would be less apparent on stage. Howe uses a little dolly to swivel us from the couch to a chair, keeping us in motion, making us a creeping voyeur as Turk tries to cop a feel in the sitting room. Most of all, he shows us the voyeurism of the house itself. Over and over again, someone watches from a distance while some more intriguing soap opera plays out. I can’t get over the way that Howe finds the through line from kitchen to the middle of that sitting room, the way we know that Lola is eyeing the action in her living room from the relative safety of her kitchen, gaping at the loud, tactile affection that she hasn’t known since some midnight tumble which, years ago, locked her into that kitchen in the first place.