The stereotype that “men like action movies and women like romances” has, I think, less to do with the genders’ respective love for action or romance per se, and more to do with our different beliefs in what makes a character complete. Action movies will always require heroes and romances will obviously require at least two characters to qualify as such, so while it might be similarly crude to say so, I’m slightly less queasy about a stereotype that posits, “Men like to celebrate great individual accomplishments and women prefer to consider the ways individuals interact.” But a great romance, one between two fully self-contained people that requires them both to grow and change, can theoretically satisfy both these urges. This is what Leo McCarey understood, and he managed to think up such a perfect story to illustrate the point that he had to tell it twice.
Love Affair and An Affair to Remember are both perfect movies, though one is perfect like a torch song and the other is perfect like a symphony. There’s nothing at all rough and tumble about the 1939 original, which boasts a spacious cruise-ship set, a long and airy scene on a Madeira mountainside, and some lovely interior and exterior views of posh New York. But the 1957 remake has all of these qualities as well, plus a more methodical pace and some of the lushest CinemaScope photography ever filmed. There’s an extended shot during a key scene in the original—though all the shots seem long and all the scenes feel essential—when Terry McKay (Irene Dunne) and Michel Marnay (Charles Boyer) are talking in barely concealed terms about their blossoming cruise-ship romance. It’s late at night and they’ve both been tossing and turning in their own cabins, kept awake by progressively unignorable feelings for the other person. They meet on the deck and lean against the railing, staring into one another’s eyes. And though the scene was clearly shot on a soundstage, director McCarey moves the camera subtly, almost imperceptibly, up and down. He wants us to feel like we’re on that boat, even though the sets are fairly spartan and the only water we see came from RKO stock footage. But McCarey knows that this romance between two betrothed adults grew out of a specific physical and emotional circumstance, and will now always be defined by it. An Affair to Remember represents this idea given full bloom; the whole beautiful film moves with the calm power and sleek grace of a luxury liner.
Superficial qualities aside, the movies are entirely the same, even line for line in many cases. A euro playboy (named Nickie Ferrante in 1957, and played by Cary Grant in perhaps his greatest performance) meets a bride-to-be (Deborah Kerr in the later film) who’s poised to move a rung or two up the social ladder when she marries in Manhattan. Stalked by photographers and the leering eyes of their scandal-hungry fellow passengers, they end up falling in love—first skeptically, then madly. Pulling into port, they agree to meet in six months at the top of the Empire State Building if their intended situations disappoint. He shows, she doesn’t, though she has her own tragic excuse. And then a chance encounter in a theater wills him out of his stubborn self-pity, and he finds her again.
Since there are only two (really three, as I’ll get to in a minute) important characters in either movie, a plot summary makes the films seem fairly hermetic. Yet it’s precisely the relationship’s odd rhythm and greater context that make it so affecting. I love the way that, with few exceptions, the man and woman’s adult-aged peers are seen either as nitwits, like the characters’ fiancé and fiancée, or as a dull mob, like the crowds watching them at dinner. Children and the elderly provide the lasting joy and guidance for these two people—the former in a couple cutesy musical performances that seemed helicoptered in from a cheesier story, and the latter in the form of Michel/Nickie’s widowed grandmother, who helps her grandson and his shipmate to an afternoon of religious, sensual, and emotional fulfillment during a stopover in Madeira. By simultaneously reminiscing and meditating on her own imminent death, this woman (Maria Ouspenskaya in ’39, Cathleen Nesbitt in ’57) establishes the stakes for this potentially one-off affair. It’s her resignation and ambivalence that lead both central characters to contemplate the potential damage of ignoring their feelings for one another. In both films, “love” is neither an at-first-sight phenomenon nor a static condition for people to aspire to; instead, it’s an edifying stage of life, a midpoint between childhood’s bouncy excitement and the wizened irresolution of old age.
This is the quality I find so appealing about McCarey’s films, and the reason I find its reputation as a “chick movie”—a description of An Affair to Remember found in Sleepless in Seattle—so beguiling. For a story about two people falling quickly, irrevocably in love, Love Affair and An Affair to Remember are both surprisingly realist (as in, non-romantic) about their title relationships. For one, the woman ends both movies with two broken legs; she may walk again, but it’s hardly a given. And then there’s the fact that these two people lost precious months of their lives and their relationship to mutual stubbornness and cruel fate. “Life is what you make it,” Michel says unconvincingly in Love Affair, a while after he showed up to the Empire State and spent a cold afternoon alone, watching his hope sink with the sunset. Unlike many romantic comedies of the current age, life is decidedly not what you make of it in McCarey’s films; instead, it comes at you hard and cruel, and if you’re lucky you’ll find the right person with whom to weather the storm. She might be hit by a taxi in the process, but you’ll have her. If this is a “chick movie,” it’s one with a hard-boiled soul.
Sleepless in Seattle concerns two people who the audience knows, from the credits onward, will end up together. It’s only circumstance—geography, miscommunication, the doubting counsel of friends—that keeps them apart. There’s a running observation that the film’s women, particularly its protagonist Annie Reed (Meg Ryan), have been somehow fooled by Hollywood, particularly An Affair to Remember, into thinking that great romances have dynamite, 10-tissue endings. Nora Ephron is clearly able to laugh at this unhelpful expectation, but it’s not clear that she recognizes its essential folly; only a person intent on being fed fairy tales would interpret the ending of McCarey’s film as purely glorious or decisively final. Instead, it’s a bittersweet moment: Two people who changed cataclysmically while together, then painfully while apart, are finally reacquainted and given a rare second chance at a relationship. Terry starts the film as a vibrant girl with a potentially disastrous future, yet she ends it bedridden and profoundly happy. McCarey’s brilliance, and his films’ indelible effect, stem from his recognition that true love is a cousin of wisdom. It’s not a peak that you reach; it’s a series of experiences that help make you a better person.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.