Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. Because it’s Love Week at The A.V. Club, we’re recommending movies about love triangles.
In most cinematic love triangles, it’s pretty obvious who the final couple is going to be—and, by extension, who the odd man out is. This was especially true whenever Cary Grant was starring. A kind-hearted milquetoast like Ralph Bellamy didn’t stand a chance (The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday), but even formidable charmer Jimmy Stewart lost Katharine Hepburn to Grant in The Philadelphia Story. In 1942’s Talk Of The Town, however, Grant finally got a run for his money in the form of distinguished British actor Ronald Colman, his rival for the love of the eternally fetching Jean Arthur. According to a biography of director George Stevens, he was so unsure as to who Arthur should end up with, he filmed two endings and let test audiences vote on the eventual winner. Consequently, Talk Of The Town remains a romantic toss-up until its final moments.
Arthur plays Nora Shelley, a schoolteacher in small-town Lochester, New England, who rents a cottage to distinguished law professor Michael Lightcap (Colman) for the summer. But the home has another, less-welcome guest: Leopold Dilg (Grant), Nora’s former schoolmate, now a rabble-rouser hiding out after being accused of arson and murder following a fire at a town factory. To Lightcap, Leopold poses as Joseph, the gardener, and both men cagily circle each other and Nora.
The chemistry is strong, including between the two men. As the trio sets up a rather unconventional household (especially considering the time period), Leopold and the professor develop a strong affection for each other after some philosophical fireside chats, with Lightcap representing the rule of law and Leopold the passion of the people. The two men then begin to affect the other, especially once Leopold’s true identity is revealed and all three players conspire to prevent his eventual trip to the electric chair. Lightcap, previously a hard-hearted stickler, doesn’t start breaking rules left and right, but he does begin bending them rather generously. Likewise, Leopold the anarchist learns to appreciate that rules can have a valuable function in society. The witty dialogue supplied by Sidney Buchman and Irwin Shaw served as a balm for moviegoers headed to the theaters for an escape from the then-raging world war; if these two men of such diametrically opposing principles could reach a sort of armistice, maybe warring countries could as well.
It’s revelatory to see Grant in such an earthy, everyman role; he doesn’t wear a single set of evening clothes in the entire movie. When we first see Leopold, he’s in a gritty jail cell and is forced to run because it’s the only way to save himself. When he claws his way toward the haven of Nora’s cottage, it’s clear that he sees her resilient spirit as the saving grace he’s been searching for over the years—an inverse of the affections expressed between his character and Arthur’s in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings.
Nevertheless, Colman may be the true heart of the picture, as a stodgy academic who finds his world turned upside down by the love of two relative strangers. In one of the movie’s most unexpectedly moving moments, Lightcap even shaves off the beard that he’s been sporting as a kind of shield to protect himself from the world, now that Nora—and Leopold—have shown him the value of connecting with people. As Lightcap risks all to save his friend, Nora falls for him even more—because he’s helping to save the other man she loves! It’s easy to see why Stevens was so stumped on how to end his movie.