Often regarded (or dreaded) as the ultimate chick flick, due in no small amount to its fetish-object role in Sleepless in Seattle, An Affair to Remember deserves better than to be the receptor of Meg Ryan’s crocodile tears. A remake by Leo McCarey of his own 1939 classic Love Affair, the film progresses as a graceful switch from romantic comedy to weepie melodrama, reflecting the director’s deep-rooted belief in the intricate bond between laughter and tears. As world-famous playboy Nickie Ferrante (Cary Grant) and professional singer Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr) meet, banter, and flirt aboard a transatlantic cruise, the story revives the comic vitality of McCarey’s ‘30s pictures, gliding along to the stars’ impeccable, often improvised repartee. The frivolity begins to deepen once the ship docks at Madeira and the couple visits Nickie’s grandmother (Cathleen Nesbitt); the two have fallen deeply in love by the time they reach New York City, setting the stage for the tragedy that will separate them in the film’s heartbreaking second half.
McCarey once described the difference between the original and the remake as the difference between Charles Boyer and Cary Grant. While Boyer previously played off Irene Dunne with a more direct, earnest ardor, Grant’s cooler, more detached persona here hides the character’s vulnerability behind a man-of-the-world tuxedo not unlike the suave masks of his cat-burglar in To Catch a Thief. Against this polished-to-a-gleam sophistication, complemented by Kerr’s smile of sly irony, McCarey plays scenes of emotional nakedness, and the result is one of resurrection—mannequins awakened to the vibrancy of unguarded feelings. The romance shakes the characters out of their complacency, with Nickie taking up the painting skills he abandoned while Terry becomes a music teacher for children. Terry’s line about the Empire State Building, the couple’s fateful meeting spot, being “the closest thing to heaven in this city” is not lost on McCarey: A deeply religious man, he could at his best conflate spiritual with emotional rapture, and the couple’s belief in love ultimately becomes their own transcendent declaration of faith.
Less rehash than incantation, An Affair to Remember is most affectingly viewed as a dream film. Grant himself allegedly balked at McCarey’s decision to film the characters’ idyllic Mediterranean interlude in the Fox backlot, yet the unreality of the scenes at the grandmother’s home and private chapel, with matte backgrounds and studio lighting, adds to the wistful mood of feelings in tentative bloom. The splendid use of the widescreen, often making Nickie and Terry the warm heart of a cool composition, illustrates the fragility of the couple’s idealized romance back in the “real world” while giving lie to the director’s supposed indifference to visual expression. McCarey is frequently compared to Japanese master Yasujirô Ozu, and indeed, An Affair to Remember looks back at Love Affair the way Ozu’s Floating Weeds looks back at A Story of Floating Weeds: as a story that once moved the director, retold in changed times as an act of defiantly anachronistic humanism. When McCarey has Kerr recite the original’s most un-self-consciously romantic lines (“Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories”), he’s asking whether the feelings behind them can still move us in 1957. It attests to the film’s emotional force that they can still move us in 2008.