Beyond the Forest (1949)

Beyond the Forest (1949) is a vicious bored housewife rural murder film noir starring Bette Davis, Joseph Cotten, David Brian and Ruth Roman as lumber town citizens wrapped up in more iniquity than should be tolerable within such an idyll.

Bette Davis vamps up as the housewife who just wants more. Dissatisfied with her life in the rural Wisconsin logging town of Loyalton where she finds herself — and unable to cope with the boredom and the satisfaction of a modest family life, she not only has an affair with a Chicago businessman, she cruelly schemes up a murder to keep her secret safe.

For Rosa Moline (Bette Davis) Chicago is a dream, and represents all things fine, and all things glamourous. For Rosa Chicago is a byword for the sophistication she craves, where expensive items await her along with interesting people.

Beyond the Forest is an incredibly dark noir melodrama, surprisingly bleak and random in its violence, and in the driving frustration felt by its anti-hero played by Bette Davis. The overstatement of her rage and her unforgiving and unsmiling attitude to her domesticated lot is quite startling.  

Bette Davis faces the dullard townspeople in Beyond the Forest (1949)

Even as a third person narrator pleasantly introduces the movie and the character of Rosa, alongside beautiful and isolating shots of the empty streets of this little lumber-mill hometown, nothing is quite going to prepare a viewer for the oppression she feels at the hands of American normality.

Joseph Cotten and Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest (1949)

The opening scenes show a trial, replete with the gaunt and unhappy peering faces of the townspeople, a world where everything is both sufficient and meagre — and none of it enough for Rosa.

Rosa's anger at the world around her amounts to solid noir. Luckily there are no psychoanalysts in the lumberjack township of Loyalton. Luckily there is no police force either, just jerks and the visiting millionaire who keeps a swank y log cabin there, complete with a hot games room and comprehensive rifle rack.

Bette Davis cocks her rifle in Beyond the Forest (1949)

Luckily there are no psychanalysts in Loyalton because they would have a field day with poor Rosa — she is certainly a Madame Bovary style of character —  she lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life and craves beauty, wealth, passion, as well as high society.

Minor Watson as the ill-fated 'Moose' in Beyond the Forest (1949)

However Rosa is Bovary on noir steroids. Her alienation from the town around her is total, and when they are not wolf whistling here they are straining their eyes as she passes, watching her every move, making of her a victim as much as a victimiser. She is debased yes, but debased by the town around here, who are nowhere near as exciting, even if they carry none of her striking evil.

Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest (1949)

David Brian in Beyond the Forest (1949)

This town has dragged her down and they seem to know it — leaving the large film questions about the dull validity of stable American living, crimeless and spineless, enough it appears to motivate Rosa's crazed behaviour. 

The resulting film is full noir with flavour. It's vulgar and excessive, leaving an indelible stain on the niceness of small town America. She is a desperate American housewife, keen for anything to remove the straitjacket of boredom — and she is punished relentlessly for this too. 

Jospeh Cotten feels the pressure — Beyond the Forest (1949)

No greater punishment befalls her than her miserable end, which Bette Davis herself described as the longest death scene ever seen on film.

Nearly as awful is the experience that Rosa has when she finally makes it to the promised land of Chicago. Not only does her millionaire boyfriend reject here there, but in a few brief scenes we see the city as cold, wet, dark and threatening — the city is oppressive and brutal. In one scene, sadly confident of herself and her capacities, Rosa goes into a bar — it's one of the best realised dives in all of film noir — forbidding, noisy, cold and unfriendly. Outside on the streets, the situation is worse and Rosa returns home bedraggled and pained.

Bette Davis in the sports room at the lodge in Beyond the Forest (1949)

In the city she suffers a short but nightmarish series of events, first being thrown out of a bar for soliciting: "You can't stay here without an escort"; then mistaken for a prostitute and propositioned by an elderly passer-by: "Buy you a beer, sister? Come on, I've got a couple of bucks"; then startled by a policeman, shouted at by an overly loud newspaper seller, laughed at by a crazy woman on a fire escape, and hassled by a bearded drunk before running in her ankle-strapped shoes to try and get a cab.

Bette Davis in Chicago's worst dive — Beyond the Forest (1949)

Although her husband played by Joseph Cotten forgives her, Rosa remains one of the trashiest, nastiest, no-good, warped sexpots in all of noir. And of course the picture was condemned by the National League of Decency for its "sordid story" and its "morally dangerous" subject matter. It was ruled as morally offensive and "unfit entertainment for motion picture audiences."

Bette Davis plans her escape — in Beyond the Forest (1949)

But that is and was the job of film noir — a part of noir's evil charm was to be the worst and tell the worst stories from the States, and to point out the sickness of normality, and contrast it with the drive for crime, which in essence is a rebellion against the goodness of society, and remain an unnatural foil and response to the taming of everyone into the social mould.

Bette Davis faces the heat in Beyond the Forest (1949)

Rosa's behaviour is atrocious by the standards of any decade, and this is not just her capacity for murder and her poor treatment of her maid — but there is her infidelity and meanness to her hard working sap of a husband — played as a straight suffering hero by Joseph Cotten — and then there is her lying and her pride, which gives her a confidence she does not merit. And all of this before we get on to her aborting of her own child, by the most perilous and suicidal of means.

Even her affair is a sham, doubtless fun in its moments but up in the city of Chicago when she meets her lover Latimer, there is bad news which she takes badly.

Latimer's chauffeured limousine picks up Rosa, who is wearing a provocative tight black dress in the rain. But then he tells her he is in love and was recently engaged to a young society woman: 

"I suppose I've always seemed a pretty tough customer. But there comes a time in a man's life when he sees things a bit differently....I worked hard all my life, Rosa. I've worked for everything I've got. Not always clean fighting either, but I got there. But it's not enough. I've missed things along the line, important things. I've got a chance now to go back and pick some of them up. We've never pulled any punches, have we?...Okay, I'm gonna lay it right on the line. I've met a girl. I'm going to marry her....Because I've fallen in love....It's the truth! I didn't know girls like that existed. She's like a book with all the pages uncut"

Rosa is distraught and furious: 

"You're sorry? What good does that do me? I've left Lewis for good. I can't go back, Neil! If you turn me down, I got nothing left, nothing!"

He then offers her money, which she rejects, before he explains the rules of engagement to her, in that caddish and manly way that seems so common in these features:

"When it comes right down to it, I didn't owe you any explanation at all. The time we spent together, I wasn't double-crossing anyone. And I didn't break up your home or break up your marriage, so don't pin that on me"

Two notes on Chicago. The first is that if you look at the title card of the movie, there is a literal illustration of the theme — that beyond the forest there is in the distance a wonderful and almost magical or mythical city, not unlike the City of Oz the way its towers emerge from the rolling landscape to create a wonderful dreamlike mirage.

Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest (1949)

Then there is the possibility of the word Chicago itself — which is repeated —  like the turning of train wheels — when Rosa is dreaming of what could be. It is strangely reminiscent of the meaning within the blues song Sweet Home Chicago, in which 'Chicago' is used as a byword for a wonderful place of consumer goods, ease, good times and easy money.

The entire debased and malicious tale seems to show no letting up, and descends further at every turn. Even Rosa's sassy and bullied maid (played by Dona Drake) seems soften up and feel sympathy by the end for this atrocious woman who has busted the censor's hearts and who will shock the public with this story lust, infidelity, adultery, unpleasantness, and murder — both of a man and an unborn child.

The forest of the title is not explicit in the movie Beyond the Forest (1949), but seems implicit in the industry of logging which dominates Loyalton. A terrible name for a town by the way — although it does suggest something of the stern misery of the inhabitants. 

Bette Davis — "What a dump!" — in Beyond the Forest (1949)

The forest though is what separates this community from the city, and it's that which Rosa can't see through, and as the lifeblood of the town's industry, it is also the trap, perhaps like the forests of fairy tales which cannot be crossed without peril, to whatever hope lies beyond.

The narrator at the head of the movie seems to know this, as he describes the cage. It's rather subtle but this wholesome little place truly feels awful from the descriptive opening voiceover:

"The sawmill is the pulse and heartbeat of the town of Loyalton. The people wake to the scream of the whistle. Go to work by it, eat lunch by it, and start home by it. And at night if their bedrooms face the mill, they have to sleep with the shades down to close out the hot flow of the sawdust that comes from the incinerator lighting the sky, burning its way through closed eyelids, through sleep itself. Even the picture theater's closed."

Jospeh Cotten  — Beyond the Forest (1949) and up the stairs

Rosa and her highly satisfactory husband Lewis return to their home after a weekend during which she has again been cunningly a-cheating, and as she files her nail and walks down the stairs she delivers the immortal line:

What a dump!

The line famously turns up again in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Married couple Martha and George, whose relationship is reminiscent of Bette Davis and Joseph Cotten in Vidor's film, have an exchange over a scene in Beyond the Forest, that opens with Martha invoking the now-famous line:

"What a dump. Hey, what's that from? ‘What a dump!’"

"How should I know what..."

"Aw, come on! What's it from? You know..."



"What's what from?"

"I just told you; I just did it. ‘What a dump!’ Hunh? What's that from?"

"I haven’t the faintest idea what..."

"Dumbbell! It's from some goddamn Bette Davis picture...some goddamn Warner Brothers epic"

"I can’t remember all the pictures that..."

"Nobody's asking you to remember every goddamn Warner Brothers epic...just one! One single little epic! Bette Davis gets peritonitis in the end...she's got this big black fright wig she wears all through the picture and she gets peritonitis, and she's married to Joseph Cotten or something..."


The personal alienation is powerful, and elicits sympathy in the viewer, despite the awful behaviour of this woman. The imagery of Rosa's last hours is powerful, and she dies in the roadway just where the train is boarded.

Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest (1949)

At the close, Rosa drags herself from her bed and in a crazed state she and hysterically makes one final attempt to escape her environment. Jenny the maid (Dona Drake) shows genuine compassion as she helps with the ankle-strapped shoes, but gets kicked for her trouble.

"Excitement. Ever hear of excitement, Jenny? It's like fire running through you! Chicago, Chicago - the toddling town, the toddling town. Chicago, Chicago. That mill sucks all the juice out of this town!" 

She insults Jenny right to the bitter end: "Do you have to stand there like a cigar store Indian? Can't you help me? The zipper's jammed! You clumsy fool! You want me to miss that train. Get out of here! Get out!"

Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest (1949)

Before her mirror, she smears herself grotesquely with lipstick and mascara before mentioning her future never-to-be married name ("Mrs. Neil K. Latimer"), and then stumbles off with the refrain "CHICAGO, CHICAGO" again pounding in her head.

It is possible that as Bette Davis was at the end of her contract with Warner Bros. that there was more going on here than just some serious film noir acting. Film historian David Melville suggests that Warner Brothers offered Bette Davis, the aging seventeen-year veteran of the studio, the role of Rosa Moline anticipating she would reject the project, a move that would allow executives to void her contract. She completed the film nevertheless, but it would be her last with Warner Brothers. She is later on record as saying it was a terrible film, and so whatever she may have been putting into it, may have been to effect this outcome. 

The result however is one of the more outrageous and debased characters in all of the mighty classic film noir canon.

Go Beyond the Forest (1949) on Wikipedia

1 comment:

  1. How right you are! There’s a lot more this film then what Pauline Kael called “peerless camp.”