(Un)welcome Romance: ‘Back Street’ Reviewed

by Rachel Bellwoar

Between the adorable waiter (Ludwig Stössel) getting all bent out of shape because Walter (Charles Boyer) isn’t putting his order in right, to Ray (Margaret Sullavan) and Walter closing out the restaurant, Ray and Walter’s first date in Robert Stevenson’s Back Street has a lot of memorable moments. Walter’s response to the question, “What do you want?” isn’t one of them.

“What most men want. Position, money, power,” Walter tells Ray, and it doesn’t seem significant, but later it’s the line Ray picks out as the moment she should’ve seen the writing on the wall.

What’s great about this callback is how much it speaks to Ray’s situation. Only a woman who’s had time to obsess over every conversation they’ve ever had would think to latch onto that line, but since becoming Walter’s mistress, Ray’s had nothing but time.

Boyer and Sullavan’s Back Street is the second of three film adaptations of Fannie Hurst’s book by screenwriters, Bruce Manning and Felix Jackson. In this version Ray could have her pick of boyfriends but falls in love with Walter after meeting him at a train station. Walter doesn’t let on right away that he has a fiancée (Nella Walker), and while there’s a moment when he might’ve called the wedding off, it doesn’t work out.

Back Street is a lot like An Affair to Remember, then, in the sense that if you found yourself getting angry at those characters, Back Street probably won’t be much different. The biggest “ugh” moment is when it looks like the film is going to have a circular closing and end the way their relationship began – at a train station – but it’s too much to ask.

It’s almost like Walter is Dracula and Ray is under his spell. The decision to cast Boyer was shrewd because it’s really like the whole film is a test of what Boyer’s charm can get away with, because while the film is technically a romance (and Stevenson’s stylized direction helps with that in the early scenes, like the haystacks and the snow), it’s one that turns ugly fast and isn’t pleasant to watch.

Film historian, Lee Gambin, and costume historian, Elissa Rose, provide the commentary track and talk about the role of the sacrificing woman in women’s pictures of the ‘40s, as well as Vera West and Muriel King’s dresses. It’s always neat to look at a film through a different lens (in this case costumes) and one of my favorite revelations was that a character’s rant about whale bones should’ve been about whale baleen instead.

Back Street is available on Blu-Ray starting March 22nd from Kino Lorber.

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