You know Tay Garnett? You probably haven't heard of Tay Garnett. The fact of the matter is, Tay Garnett really isn't a terribly important film director, though there are those among us who perk up at checking out what promises to be yet another '30s or '40s programmer, and unexpectedly find his name attached. I think that in order to be such a strange and rare creature as a Garnett fanboy, one must have come to two very particular films first in his whole canon, though I don't know that the order within those two matters very much (this was, at any rate, the way I did it): one of these is The Postman Always Rings Twice, the most frustrated and fatalistic of all early films noirs, and the other is One Way Passage, a hyper-melodramatic weeper from 1932 that nobody has seen, and everybody who has seen it seems to adore beyond measure. Which, I want to make clear, is absolutely the correct response. This isn't just a top-notch "women's picture" or "4-hankie movie", as they used to call torrid romantic melodramas back in the day: catch me in a mood to make hyperbolic, definitive statements, and you might well find me calling it the very best women's picture of the 1930s.

Statements like that need backing up, and I shall do so presently, though part of the joy of One Way Passage is that it offers so many avenues for praise. It is a magnificently sophisticated piece of filmmaking for 1932, coming right at the end of the early sound period and demonstrating how infinitely far technique had come in the three-and-a-quarter years since The Broadway Melody (or hell, in the year-and-a-half since Dracula). It is a mercilessly crisp act of storytelling, plowing through scenes at an unflagging pace without ever feeling rushed, and coming in at an exactly correct 67 total minutes. It mixes wry humor, blowsy comic relief, sudsy tragedy, and swoony romance in exactly the right measure to keep the tone balanced such that we're never encouraged to stop and think about how ludicrously histrionic the scenario really is (this worked well enough to net the film an Oscar on its sole nomination, for Best Original Story). It offers a chance to see William Powell in a slightly rougher, more curt incarnation than the luminous playboy of The Thin Man, paired with Kay Francis in the best of the (too, too few) performances I've seen that unjustly overlooked ex-superstar give. It has an ending that has every reason to be the corniest thing you could imagine and no reason at all to be so gloriously beautiful and moving and elegant.

When I tell you what the notion is behind the film, you will instantly understand what I mean with words like "torrid" and "histrionic" and "hyper-melodramatic". The shortest version of the movie: Dan Hardesty (Powell) and Joan Ames (Francis) have a glorious love affair during their four-week voyage on a liner traveling from Hong Kong to San Francisco. Neither of them knows that the other has a secret: Dan is an escaped murderer in custody of policeman Steve Burke (Warren Hymer), and he's being brought back to the United States to face his executioners, and Joan has a disease so terminal that her doctor (Frederick Burton) isn't convinced that she'll make be alive long enough to see the sanitarium that she's notionally sailing to.

Is that overwrought and shameless? YES! Is it hokey and campy! ABSOLUTELY NEVER! Certainly the most unexpected achievement of the film is that Garnett manages the film's tones so mercilessly, creating a film that could not be more unabashedly a weeper, but is entirely free of the perceived cheesiness that makes so many people disdain '30s melodrama (quite unfairly, in my estimation, but there are some fights you can't win). Partially this is because of its efficiency - I've already mentioned that it clocks in at 67 minutes, but it's worth repeating, because even in an age when movies were so much shorter than they are now, 67 minutes was a pretty damn short feature, and it leaves no chance to linger on moments, or more to the point, to wallow in them. Partially, it's because of the comic relief con-artists Skippy (Frank McHugh) and "Barrel House" Betty (Aline McMahon), colleagues of Dan who are both on the boat for entirely unrelated reasons, but decide to pool their resources and help keep Steve off his back - the policeman has given him some freedom of movement onboard, thinking that Dan's attempt to drown him was actually a fearless attempt to save him from the sea - and who keep things light without ever tipping over into fatally unbalancing the movie, though McHugh's shrill way of delivering lines is lot harder to defend than any other individual element of the film.

Mostly, it's Powell and Francis, who are both unbelievably wonderful. One Way Passage is essentially a star vehicle, though to a viewer eight decades gone, it's a weird one, given that Francis's star power has been mostly lost to time, and Powell remains familiar for playing a very different kind of person in a very different way. Nevertheless, it has all the functioning of a routine star picture, in terms of the way that the actors are privileged in the shot and in the drama, the roles written around them more than they are adapting to the roles (and if he's miles away from Nick Charles in the elegance department, Dan Hardesty is still awfully fucking dapper and suave for an escaped killer who has run three-quarters around the globe).

Most importantly, though, neither Powell nor Francis were given, at any point in their careers with which I am familiar, to pleading for the audience to like them. As a result, there's never a moment in this most tragic scenario where either of the leads plays the tragedy, and Francis particularly has a few wonderful moments scattered throughout where she very conspicuously isn't playing a woman haunted by the encroaching shade of death. Seven years later, Bette Davis - who I love - played a similar arc in Dark Victory - in which I especially love her - and gave full expression to her character's awareness of mortality; it makes a good comparison for what Francis is up to is, which is if possible even more impressive. For Francis, without ever letting a scene imply that Joan has forgotten her affliction, plays a lot of scenes in which Joan is happier now than she is worried about the future, and not because she's opportunistically using love as a distraction from death, but because she is genuinely and enthusiastically in love.

While this unexpectedly pleasant and not-at-all strident love affair is playing out, Garnett and his crew were busily employing some of the most accomplished technique of 1932 to give the melodrama an opportunity to make its fullest impact. The shot I always remember, both for its impressive craft and for its emotional impact, is a POV shot from Dan, down in the water where he's pushed himself and Steve, noticing Joan on the boat's deck, watching the commotion with several other people (they've already met, at this point). The camera pushes up and towards Francis, looking for all the world like a routine zoom, except that zooms weren't even close to existing yet. It's impressive in its own right, but also the perfect way to indicate how magnetic the attraction is between the two lovers, and how Dan's perception literally blocks out everything but Joan, thus explaining why he immediately throws away his freedom to be with her.

Beautiful stuff, in a movie full of beautiful stuff: it starts off on that foot, in fact, with a glorious opening tracking shot that suggests the multinational polyglot of Hong Kong by drifting across a bar divided into international segments based on what kind of drinks are poured there. There's also a fantastic visual motif that starts in this same scene (following an unbelievably literate and sexy flirtation over liquor between the two leads) in which the lovers break martini glasses and lay the stems over each other. It's a crafty enough way to visualise physical and romantic connection, but the real pay-off comes at the end: we've seen the same basic shot set-up three times, always on the customer side of the bar, looking at the glass stems, but the film's last shot looks from behind the bar down on them, an inversion that nicely compliments the out-of-nowhere but totally earned gesture of romantic anti-realism of the last scene. Which I will not further describe, because it's a gorgeous ending and worthy of being seen blind, the first time.

It is, all in all, a crisp, clear-headed, adult movie, selling its heightened conceit so smartly and sincerely that it barely even registers as a contrivance by the 15-minute mark. There's a kind of earnestness to the melodramatic action here that is entirely unlike anything American filmmakers would even dream of doing today, but even by '30s standards, not that many films are as effective at all levels both artistic and narrative as this; it's a masterpiece both of cinema and of its genre, two things that are not necessarily the same achievement, and as worthy of rediscover as any lost classic from that period which I can name.