Modern day romantic films have salted me on the romances of the classics. Raised on a steady diet of reductive and trite ways to “win” someone’s heart can leave one cynical, and it’s only through watching the right romances of the studio era that you uncover that well of admiration for old-fashioned romance that’s been covered over. An Affair to Remember is the perfect film to rid you of any cynicism you might have regarding love, which isn’t surprising considering it’s directed by the master of emotions, Leo McCarey. An Affair to Remember isn’t nearly as emotionally complex as Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), a film as sad as it is beautiful, but McCarey shows himself adept at navigating the sensuality of love.Sexy in its chastity, An Affair to Remember is hard to forget!
Notorious playboy Nickie Ferrante (Cary Grant) is traveling to America to get married. On the same boat is quiet nightclub singer Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr). The two meet and develop a relationship they can’t ignore. The two promise to meet in six months at the top of the Empire State Building, but will their feelings have changed in the meantime?
Between this and Make Way for Tomorrow McCarey enjoys putting his couples in different modes of isolation, either together or apart. Make Way for Tomorrow saw its couple separated and forced into smaller interiors – their children’s houses, then a part of their children’s houses, then their own rooms – to mimic the descent from life into the grave. An Affair to Remember places Terry and Nickie into a literal sea of people. The ship’s close quarters make it impossible for them to avoid each other, but their growing attraction makes this both a blessing and a curse. With Nickie such a public figure everyone soon takes to watching and judging the couple’s innocuous meetings, taking pictures of them without consent, even laughing as Terry and Nickie are unwittingly eating dinner side by side. They’re the only two people in the world to each other, but that goes for everyone else on the ship who derive pleasure from their embarrassment. Terry and Nickie are packed into the film’s frame at several points to emphasize their claustrophobia – and paranoia about others taking their relationship the wrong way – most prominently when they’re ready to exit the ship, looking at each other through the crowd yet still able to latch onto each other’s gaze instantly.
Unlike most movies in general that rely on clearly defined conflicts as a method of moving things along, McCarey utilizes the push of human emotions to stand-in for jilted lovers or mistaken identity. Terry and Nickie’s attempt to stave off their relationship from going further is, in itself, the plot they must overcome. Neither is malicious, and both (or in Terry’s case) have kind-hearted lovers back home waiting for them. But, as Terry says, one can’t plan for these things and love just happens. There’s no attempt to vilify or valorize anyone; McCarey is a director of people.
Over half the film takes place on the ship leaving Terry and Nickie to play out their relationship in public with all manner of sexy subtlety. Make no mistake, an Affair to Remember isn’t given credit for how sensual the actual affair is. Victorian novels prided themselves on making a handhold the closest thing to heaven, but McCarey – with Grant and Kerr, who improvised most of their interactions – deftly makes those handholds matter. As Terry hugs boyfriend Ken, Nickie comes up behind Ken to kiss Terry’s hand. Earlier, the two dance around a staircase in order to have a conversation in private, something you’d see in the pages of Jane Austen. There’s a purity to these moments that’s tense, sweet and, yes, sexually tinged. Cary Grant did get around the three-second kiss ban in Notorious (1946) after all!
It’s hard to imagine a two-hour movie today running purely on the charisma and burgeoning love between its two leads. Deborah Kerr isn’t an actress I’ve gravitated towards before, but as Terry McKay her fragile beauty is endearing. Her character endures the most, for good and ill. She’s a nightclub singer seeking respectability, with a good man (played by poor man’s William Holden, Richard Denning) more than willing to love her. In fact, Denning is so perfect, able to make an impact on the audience while arriving over an hour into proceedings, that it’s hard not to wish Terry is with him. Sure, he’s not exciting as Grant, but he’s so chivalrous, going so far as to say he’ll still love Terry if Nickie isn’t waiting for her! He’s a keeper, Terry! The 11th-hour twist involving a wheelchair did rankle me, if only because, as a disabled person myself, the idea that Terry isn’t deserving of love because she’s disabled and must hide doesn’t sit well with me. Cest la vie!
You can’t do any better for a leading man than Cary Grant. The man could sweep anyone off their feet, regardless of gender. Grant’s playboy persona is well-known, but McCarey infuses the character with a waywardness. The “big dame hunter” has a humanity illustrated when he and Terry visit his grandmother. I’d ordinarily criticize these two for having the fairy-tale love that manifests in 24 hours, but when visiting Nickie’s grandmother emphasizes their comparability; these two have known each other forever, maybe in a past life.
An Affair to Remember could easily fall into maudlin sentiment but its empathy is proudly displayed for all to see. At times swoon-inducing, beautifully acted and wonderfully written, An Affair to Remember is a dream come true!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.