In the interests of full disclosure I have to share that I’m not a Katharine Hepburn fan and likely never will be. For the most part I find her acting overdone and her movies mostly uninspired. I clearly don’t see her gifts.
But Undercurrent, an outing from Ms. Hepburn in 1946, bucks that trend completely. For starters, it isn’t the typical MGM Hepburn vehicle. Rather, it’s a darkish melodrama bordering on noir, though perhaps not quite in that genre. Hepburn is also not cast as the strong driving woman which is her forte, but rather as a rather timid and subservient character, sheltered first by her parents and then by her husband.
Hepburn is Ann Hamilton and extremely sheltered near-spinster who apparently tinkers in a back-room lab while she lives at her parents house. Along comes Alan Garroway (Robert Taylor) to discuss some business with her father. Alan soon sweeps Ann off her feet and before she knows it they are married and travelling constantly though based in Washington, DC.
At a coming out party that Alan throws for her to introduce his new bride to his DC cronies, it’s clear that poor Ann is out of her element. Not only can she not hold a conversation with anyone at the party, but she can’t even dress the part, wearing a figurative gingham sack in a see of cocktail dresses and pearls.
Not long after the nuptials, Ann begins to hear of Alan’s mysterious and long-vanished brother Michael, who once co-owned the company with Alan. After piecing together a few clues from Alan, she figures that Michael was caught embezzling the company’s funds on ranches, booze and women- though perhaps not in that order. But details are hard to come by and some think that Michael’s dead.
Between the caretaker at Alan’s estate (it’s clear that it really never becomes hers), the handyman at Michael’s old ranch, and old flame of both brothers and continued cryptic hints and hostility on the subject from Alan, she pieces together only little new information.
As she continues to pushes for information Alan’s irritation grows to the point that they actually separate for awhile. Now in a typical Hepburn film she’d either confront him or just walk away. But in Undercurrent she cajoles and ingratiates to get back in Alan’s good graces almost to the point of begging. There’s of course more, but much more would spoil the ending.
As good as Hepburn is in Undercurrent, she’s still Katharine Hepburn. Early on- before Robert Taylor’s entrance- there’s a longing scene at the breakfast table where we see the Kate that I don’t particularly care for. Coming off as overacted and self-centered (much of it played against a dog) it was nearly enough to hit stop. But I didn’t and neither should you. Outside of this scene (and another later on which also features Kate and a dog) there isn’t much tying this to the ‘typical’ Hepburn film.
She’s clearly the glue which hold the picture together and also drives the plot forward with her constant needling of everyone she comes across for information on Michael. It’s nice to see her out of her comfort zone as well! It’s strangely hard to see another actress in the role. It might have been a good fit for Barbara Stanwyck, but hard to see anyone pulling it off like Hepburn does here.
Vincente Minnelli also takes a turn perhaps outside his comfort zone. Known best for musicals and other mostly lighter MGM fare, stretches his legs admirably with a quality effort here. In his only effort even close to noir, he drives a suspenseful and thrilling picture. You can feel Michael Garroway throughout the entire picture and almost feel the slow and timid Ann’s mind click every time she finds another piece of the puzzle.
Also cast against type is Robert Mitchum. Known almost universally throughout his long career as the prototypical tough guy, here he’s a softer sentimental type. As a result Mitchum didn’t care for his role, finding it too soft for his liking. That coupled with extremely limited screentime would seem to make Mitchum (whom Hepburn detested) an afterthought here, but nothing could be further from the truth. With only three or four scenes he almost steals the entire picture!
And Robert Taylor is Robert Taylor but better than usual. Here he is alternatively cloying, brooding, morose or just darn mean. Some would say that perhaps Mitchum was better placed to play the heavy, which Taylor is here, but Taylor is strong in an uncommon (but not unheard of) role on the darker side. Strangely my favorite Robert Taylor films are those where he does play on the dark side. His tortured and sinister characters are much more enjoyable than the lily white characters he played overly often.
There’s a lot to like her clearly, though many viewers fall into the opposite camp as well, finding it plodding and slow. Many also cite its similarities to Hitchcock, specifically Suspicion, to which it does have a few similarities.
Lastly the music is fairly ho-hum, with the exception of the piano theme, which is repeated throughout and worked into the story-line as well. Unfortunately it isn’t original to the picture but is a piano arrangement of Brahms’ Third Symphony.
Undercurrent is a great vehicle- if nothing else- to see almost everything turned upside down. Robert Mitchum and Katharine Hepburn cast against type alone make it worth a viewing. But yet we also have Vincente Minnelli in a bit of an oddturn as a director. In yet another twist, Hepburn was older than both of her male co-stars at the time!