I watched Executive Suite (Robert Wise, 1954) today because it exists in the area of my research, but really, to be honest, for Barbara Stanwyck. A few weeks ago, to my horror, I came upon this film for the first time– how did I not know of it before? An all-star cast with Fredric March, Shelley Winters, June Allyson, Walter Pidgeon, and of course, William Holden. To be really honest, I wanted this film to be about Stanwyck and Holden, to be an ultimate expression of their irrepressible chemistry, as more silver screen proof of this great Hollywood love. I wanted it to be another memento to my favourite lady and her golden boy. Sadly it was not– Holden acts the part of a happily married man (unfortunately, to my temperament that loves a tempestuous love affair) and the only conversation they have is about their business.
Even so, as far as conversations about business go, it’s a great one. Stanwyck proves herself here, does not spend one modicum of energy without taking it all the way along the scale of emotion. Her intractable lover has died, and it is clear that he was not one to receive her feelings or share his openly. Angry beyond anything, she screams, “What did I ever get out of it but loneliness and sudden death?!” She and Holden get close, their chemistry oozes from the screen, through their urgent breaths, until he leaves the room and leaves her, again, alone. The literal meaning of her outburst is revealed– in a crescendo of hysterical grief she runs to the window, steps onto the ledge, and almost jumps into the cacophony below. This is a key moment for me, as a church bell somewhere begins to chime, invading the soundscape and assaulting her already fragile will, and she can’t jump. Overwrought, she collapses into the window frame– but it was a sound that saved her, a marker of time, a symbolic reminder of life’s continuous flow. This sound saved her life.
These same bells end the film– almost. After a board meeting, the clock strikes midnight (or is it noon?). When the bells sound out, a train chugs along its tracks, far below the executive building that the camera rests on. A conflation of skyscraper image, church bells sounding out over the top of the city, and a train blasts its noises from ground level, Wise utilises all the dimensions of the cinema’s audiovisual medium, and finishes Executive Suite with a most complete cross-section of a city.
(Just to clarify, I really do believe that Barbara Stanwyck and William Holden were lovers. Stanwyck elegantly hid all her scandal from the press but you can totally see it in her eyes, and feel it in that electricity of the screen. I suppose that really, the only evidence I have is my own desire to find in everything a desperate romanticism. But life is so much more fun my way, I recommend it.)