Kissing and the movies go together like Bogey and Bacall. Or at least they used to, before sex got into the pictures. So for Valentine's Day, why not celebrate the lost art of screen romance?

David Thomson
Sunday 09 February 1997 01:02

"You must remember this ..." But if you do remember, then you know a kiss - a movie kiss, that spasm on a spotless screen - is never just a kiss. I mean, is there any other medium better made for the kiss? You look at something like Rodin's bronze embrace and you have to feel the pathos of that cold, eternal lockjaw, the lovers so crazy-glued together they can never back off a few inches to delight in the warm halation of smudged kissy-face - or go any further. And, sure, there are kisses in literature that we remember, from Sleeping Beauty's awakening to Nabokov's ecstatic description of what just saying "Lolita" does to the mouth. But devote more than a short paragraph to a written kiss and you're getting into dental surgery or some weirdly formal version of pornography. Literature's not good at losing control without making fun of the wild thing at the same time.

But in the movies - and especially, I suggest, the movies made between the coming of sound and the collapse of censorship (late Twenties to late Sixties) - the kiss is not just sweet, lovely and natural; it is nearly the logical conclusion, or climax, to the finest voyeuristic syntax of the form. After all, movies at their deepest level are about watchful faces. If you were to analyse or count the shots in movies (don't worry, there's no need), you would see how many of them are about faces, often close-up faces, cut off from the rest of their bodies and much sense of the world, looking at, gazing at, wondering about and trying almost to become other equally isolated and enshrined faces. So it's natural that these two-shots, or faces, should meet, and melt. Movies are about the dream of one face getting into, almost becoming, another. In some love scenes, the shots of two faces are even gently dissolved into one another.

Consider Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner (1940), set in Budapest but shot at MGM, one of the best love stories ever filmed. James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan work at the same shop. They don't get on very well; they argue, they are at cross-purposes and it nearly hurts them to look at each other. But, shy romantics, they are both engaged in epistolary love affairs, writing, with mounting sentiment and recognition, to strangers. They are unaware that they are writing to each other. And so the movie is a delicate, fragile (for this is perilous business) comedy about whether two would-be lovers can overcome their own considerable intellectual prejudices. (There is much more to this rich film, but you can discover that yourselves.)

Lubitsch filmed in the American way of 1940 - group shots, people talking together, human situations held in one frame, without many close-ups. But as the romantic misunderstanding rises to critical mass, and as the awful, beautiful truth dawns on the two people, so proud and so lost, he begins to show them in their own medium, and - closer than that - their own shots. For they have started to study each other; that attentiveness is the mark of falling in love. We ache for their success. There is one shot, a slice of Sullavan's face, as seen from inside her empty mailbox as she looks for a message, that is both tortured and exquisite. Like a theorem, the film gently pursues its own proof until the last shot (their first kiss), a rush of released music - and the whole thing is over. Nearly 60 years old, it is as piquant as an Eszterhazy honey ball (a Hungarian confection, recommended for would-be kissers, but hard to find now outside that Old Budapest specialised in by MGM).

So many films of the kiss-era I am talking about closed with that opening of faces that solved all muddle and melodrama and sent the audiences out into the other, larger dark, their hopes about hopefulness renewed. There was no more telling emblem of what the movies were - of the harmony of arrestingly intimate actions and enormous, impossible, sweeping desires - than those heady two-shots, of the shoulders and above, taken looking slightly upwards so that there was space, light and the shine of yearning above the lovers (a place for their heat to rise to), of a couple so joined that they might actually be one entity with two heads and four hands (all the better for caressing - or was it self-caressing?).

There was softness, a downy bed, made by the woman's hair (nearly always long and spilling), by fur or silk that lapped up to their faces, and the remarkable way in which two faces were set at angles, but conjoined, without so much as the least shadow spoiling cheek, brow, chin or mouth. Such things were not easy to arrange: shooting a kiss was a rare art, and sometimes the swept-away lovers had to know how to writhe and swim in their own glowing rapture without going out of focus. (An aside: has art history ever wondered how far the famous fracturing of faces in Picasso and Francis Bacon, say, is an emotional response to what the eye sees in kissing?)

And we heard the splash, grind and whispering of kisses. Of course, there had been epic osculations in silent cinema. But the true, saturated, tongue- twisting silence of lovers in their communion was only possible when the medium added sound - the one great conspiratorial urging that silent movies cannot do is silence, the immersion in someone that ignores words but hears the rustle and creak of clothes, the heartbeat of room tone, the friction of skin and the palpation of mouths opening and swallowing, the draining of saliva and the sheer coursing of blood and other bodily fluids. In great kissing scenes, you can close your eyes and feel that there are microphones in the woman's earlobes finely attuned to every escaped sigh or moan, not to mention the passing need to breathe. Kissers sound like people asleep, sucking on their dreams.

It's the sound that is most seductive in the great, and in its day famously prolonged, kissing scene from Notorious (1946). Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are seen first on the balcony of a Rio de Janeiro apartment. They are both wearing hound's-tooth-check jackets - of slightly different mesh - that seem ready to interlock. The kiss begins outside in the evening air, but then he slides her inside and the greased camera tracks in with them. The mingling of the kiss propels them across the room, stroking, murmuring - there is talk all the time, and it is not casual - until the phone rings. The effect is very strange: was Grant always working his way towards the phone? He picks it up, and talks, though the rapture goes on for her, not just interrupted, but provoked by the phone. But now we see that he is still, dark and closed, while Bergman is desperate, open and longing to be saved by love. He kisses her still while he hears the news on the phone that her "assignment" has been decided. He is a spy, and she has been co-opted in the campaign against some Nazis. She is to give herself to the leading villain, as a way of infiltrating the group. Her lover, Grant, has helped arrange it, and so their kiss has been poisoned, a terrible trap. Yet it is gorgeous, too, heard and felt and so arousing in 1946 that some people felt everything was going too far. Those were the days when in most cinemas the back rows were effectively reserved for couples and their snogging. But sometimes if the picture got too dull (or too kissy-kissy), then naughty kids would saunter towards the back of the theatre to study (in the screen's light) the teenage abandon of homeless lovers sprawled across the velour stalls. Until an usherette waved you away with her torch - and resumed her special voyeur's vantage.

There's a painting that sums up that age of usherettes - Edward Hopper's New York Movie (1939), in which an usherette stands beneath a cluster of shaded lights, pensive or dreamy, her chin in her cupped hand, not attending to, but in the dark presence of the theatre, its plush seats and encrusted decor, and what is just a lunar sliver of the black-and- white screen. You can't make out the image up there, yet it ought to be lovers' mouths, as huge and serene as the zeppelin of Man Ray's mouth - the painting he did in 1934 of a pair of red lips drifting over a landscape. There was always a surrealist subtext in the way people lounging half- asleep or lost in dream in the dark could observe mouths the size of cruisers slipping across the screen, driven by the furtive gurgle and the squeezed smooch of a kiss.

Nearly all kisses from the Thirties and the Forties - Gable and Crawford, Ladd and Lake, Robert Taylor and Garbo (punctuated by Camille's cough) - could serve as examples. Yet it was in the Fifties, I think, that the kiss became more urgent. We had seen the drooping, needy mouths of Brando, Presley and Dean, and we guessed that something like real sex could not be far away. But if you are interested in rapture, there is little to surpass Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951) - dark heads, with shining dark eyes. Though the movie talks of sun, it's black- and-white and always foreboding. These are guilty lovers (at least until he's been condemned). Then she visits him one last time, and there are close-ups and two-shots of them - not so much embracing, as joined in the last rite of adoration - that are as beautiful as anything the movies ever did. These shots were done with telephoto lenses, so the faces seemed lifted out of drab reality.

Their faces are in their own short-lived paradise; and maybe Clift and Taylor were two of the last generation that really believed in screen kisses. After all, they fell in love kissing for the camera, slipping between the cracks of fiction and friction just as audiences always wondered - "Are they really doing it?" We live now in an age of antic, acrobatic, simulated intercourse (for the most part), but that Fifties kissing was real, and many a dry actor got wet for life in the endless re-takes. Some said they were professional about it. But how could the movies have been so potent if the actors hadn't believed as much as we wanted to? If you had to kiss Clift or Taylor for three hours, who couldn't find some motivation?

And if you want something more robust and dangerous, then try Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity (1953), running out of the waves at Diamond Head, Hawaii, tumbling on the hard sand. Burt's was a trained circus body still, and Deborah's one that we were all shocked to see in so flagrant a scene (that's "shocked" as Claude Rains uses the word in Casablanca). They rolled in the surf and the imagery was so innocently horny that dirty censors clipped four seconds out of it - as if, for an instant, legs opened and surf was the new saliva. But it was a kiss that kept the movie in touch with the considerably more explicit scenes of James Jones's novel. And Hawaii is now a loveboat tourist haven.

Things changed, of course. As censorship wilted, other urges got hard- ons. The screen admitted nakedness, tougher language and much more educational versions of sex. The great glory of the kissing two-shot (maybe the most expressive illustration of what Hollywood meant, the stamp of its romantic imperialism) gave way to the isolated close-up of a flustered Warren Beatty, half aghast, half unable to believe his luck, feebly beating away at Faye Dunaway as she makes to go down on him in Bonnie and Clyde. (Hadn't he offered his pistol to be kissed?) But mouth-to-mouth didn't thrill any longer. And we are enlightened now - if that is the word - by the odd loneliness of women (or actresses - are they doing it?) gushing over with impromptu cries, involuntary moanings and the noise of orgasm in shots that might have been done with the guy at the beach for the day. Or you can have Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, sighing discreetly (as if he'd slipped off tight shoes), as the great, Grand Canyon mouth of Julia Roberts seeks out his gear shift.

Yes, sex is more real and authentic now, and kissing in the old days was a mad stimulus that may have left people unbalanced because they never got to the real thing. Still, something has been lost. No one quite knows how to film a kiss now, or how to do it on screen. You could see the fantasy being peeled away in that extraordinary scene in Some Like It Hot (1959) where the allegedly frigid Tony Curtis encourages the cartoonishly voluptuous Marilyn Monroe to do her best to get him going again. There are endless kisses from Monroe, with the effect of her ice-cream being wasted on dried anchovy. But kissing was being mocked and undermined, just as the woman Monroe played was being held up to ridicule. Later on, in recollection, Curtis said it had been like "kissing Hitler", because Marilyn was so selfish, so difficult, so unprofessional. Maybe, but at the time every man was being urged to laugh at the exploitation of the stupid big blonde loyal to a lost cause.

It's nearly time to go, and I've left so much out - the way Bogart and Bacall learn how to kiss, with the merit of both parties trying, in The Big Sleep; the reckless pride in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) with which Jessica Lange sweeps bakery off the kitchen table, stirring up the flour, and looks at Nicholson with, "All right, Come on! Huh? Come on!", dragging him into her like a feeding tube she needs; the kiss in Touch of Evil that sets off the bomb; the way in Of Human Bondage Bette Davis nearly erases her face as she tries to wipe away the memory of Leslie Howard's kisses; Dietrich in Morocco, pausing, considering and - oh, very well - dropping a naked kiss on the mouth of the pretty woman at the cabaret who has found her amusing; the last look in White Squall between Jeff Bridges and Caroline Goodall, husband and wife, as she is about to drown, and they are separated by plate glass, not a kiss but a kinship; the kiss that whispers "Rosebud" and gives us all the gift of the mystery story in Citizen Kane; and even the way in Patton that the fearless fearsome general puts a kiss of salutation on the brow of an exhausted soldier.

There are kisses still, thank God. As there should be on 14 February, a day of love and massacre - or what the movies used to aspire to be: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.

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