Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 6, 2011)
Screen duos don’t get more famous than Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn, and 1942’s Keeper of the Flame represents their second film together. On a dark and stormy night, famed industrialist and noted patriot Robert Forrest dies when his car flies off a washed-out bridge. This sends the nation into mourning.
Journalist Steven O’Malley (Tracy) decides to write an inspirational biography of the great man, but this hits some snarls. First, he can’t gain access to Forrest’s widow Christine (Hepburn), as she seals herself off in their estate and refuses to speak to the press. However, he manages to buddy up with the caretaker’s son Jeb (Darryl Hickman) and makes his way into the Forrest compound.
That’s where matters take a turn for the unexpected. When O’Malley investigates, he senses something amiss and believes that there’s more to the story. Did Forrest die in an accident or was foul play afoot?
Having not seen a lot of Tracy/Hepburn films, I went into Flame with a general notion of them as a mismatched romantic on-screen couple. That was the template set with their first effort, 1942’s Woman of the Year, and it persisted with subsequent flicks such as Adam’s Rib.
Perhaps because it’s early in their partnership, Flame falls outside of that preconceived notion. While some supporting characters contribute comic relief – somewhat awkwardly, as those elements feel out of place – the film concentrates on the drama and mystery.
Or at least that’s what it tries to do. Flame creates a decent noirish mood, but its story falters. More specifically, the manner in which it tales its tale sputters, as long passages go without much happening until the movie comes to a screeching halt to allow its characters to throw out important facts.
That’s the main problem here: the way in which Flame develops its material. O’Malley doesn’t seem like much of a reporter; he tends to luck or blunder into news and doesn’t seem able to find out much on his own.
This means the film concentrates on long monologues in which characters reveal significant elements. Rather than have these come out in a more natural manner, the movie simply stops abruptly to get us up to date.
The structure creates an uncomfortable disconnect between its scenes. One minute, it’s a noir mystery, and the next it turns into a war-time appeal for liberty. The elements don’t join together in a neat fashion, so the seams become more apparent.
I do like the opportunity to see Tracy and Hepburn act in something out of their usual wheelhouse. They do fine together; I can’t say that either sets the screen on fire, but they’re perfectly fine in their roles. Indeed, Tracy’s presence probably gives O’Malley more weight than he’s due, as otherwise he’d seem more like a bumbler.
Flame also looks good, as it uses moody cinematography to create a nice tone. Unfortunately, attractive photography, an appealing cast and an intriguing story aren’t enough to carry this film. It’s just too awkward and inconsistent to succeed.
(By the way, I don’t want to tout my own horn, but my synopsis offers a better idea of the story without spoilers than the one in the DVD’s package. That one lets you know a major plot point that doesn’t emerge until four-fifths of the way into the movie!)