Vivien Leigh may be the great beauty of 1939, but in “Waterloo Bridge” she turns herself into just one of the girls. As Myra Lester she’s meek and chummy and a little bit fragile. We first see her behind other girls passing by the bridge, we only see her because we’re looking for her. She’s not the lead of her ballet company playing in a vaudeville theatre, nor the first lady to get the job or the soldier. What makes her stand out in the crowd and to Captain Roy Cronin (Robert Taylor) are her ideals. The rainy day after their first date will put her in a whirlwind engagement and a series of events that will slowly but surely transform her, and Leigh transforms with her character every step of the way.
Roy, however, keeps the innocence that Myra’s lost, a difficult thing to pull off for a grown man who’s fought in the Great War. He’s also the soldier who doesn’t take no for an answer which makes us feel a little uncomfortable but fortunately finds Myra who’s in love with him despite a few apprehensions. His speech and body language are good, especially in the scene when he has to go through the bodyguards in his barracks. Yes, Taylor only uses the British accent one word per sentence, but we let that go.
Although made by MGM and stars Nebraska-born Taylor, the film is very much British. It kinda reminds me of “Brief Encounter” in a way that there’s a certain noir aspect to the film. Instead of guns and grifters, there are menacing shadows inside night clubs and train stations and ancestral homes and flats, fogs on bridges, headlights on women’s faces. Instead of a suburban American home, romance is set in London grit. It’s like love isn’t meant to last in the city, or that the city has too many roadblocks and temptations that take two perfectly matched lovers away from each other.
You can’t really tell whose vehicle this is – whether it is Sidney Lumet’s urban theatre about power struggle and the defense for what is right, or if it’s David Mamet’s, again, theatre where the world crowds and burdens our idealistic protagonist looking for redemption. It’s both. I’m more familiar with Lumet’s work. The other film I’ve seen of Mamet is “Redbelt.” I’ve read “Glengarry GlenRoss” the play and for some reason only have a vague recollection of it. Either way this seems like a slow marinade compared to their other work. It’s after fifty minutes later when Frank Galvin’s (Paul Newman) client’s brother-in-law confronts him which gets us at the edge of our seat.
It’s also unlike their work where in this movie, we get a lot of short scenes instead of a few big acts. The drama gets built up as we see both Galvin’s side and the archdiocese’s camp strategize, both teams stoic but they show a few breaks of sweat now and then. Speaking of stoic, Paul Newman’s looking the same but with gray hair. His performance is a bit quieter here than his showy roles fifteen years earlier. He doesn’t do any yelling even in his last speech. It’s this subtlety that would mark his better roles after this one.
I’ve joked in private that David Mamet couldn’t write women. This movie, however, gives us Laura Fischer (Charlotte Rampling), a strong female who’s also afraid of her tough persona. There’s Sally Doneghy, still feeling the pull and tug between her husband and vegetable sister. Finally, there’s Kailtin Costello Price, the nurse whose less than five-minute appearance makes us feel as if we’ve known her life story. This is one of the incidents where I couldn’t have been more glad to be wrong.
Lastly, this paragraph isn’t necessarily a spoiler as much as it is an advice to douchebag judges and lawyers. How did Frank and the Plaintiff win? Sandbag the little guy once, shame on you. Sandbag them twice and they jury will see what’s going on.