1940's The Lady Eve is the one where pale ale heir - and part-time reptile enthusiast - Henry Fonda falls for (and over) Barbara Stanwyck on a cruise ship where the latter, a conwoman, is working a grift; when he takes her back to his cabin to show her his snake, the problems begin. Though the idiosyncratic supporting players have a field day in sidebars (Eric Blore as an aristocrat with a house "at the heart of the contract bridge belt", the perpetually sour-faced William Demarest, doing a mean throwaway Hitler impression as Fonda's aide-de-camp), the manic archness usually associated with writer-director Preston Sturges is hardly anywhere else to be seen here: this is very much the Fonda and Stanwyck show, sincere about flirtation, growing sexual attraction, and the possibility of something more besides.
That Sturges means it this time, and wants us to care, too, can be gleaned from the manner in which he treats the big reveal of Stanwyck's criminal past as a kind of tragedy - and later spots the cruelty in his female lead's eyes (an early glimpse of Double Indemnity, perhaps) as she walks away from this holiday fling with a sizeable cheque to show for herself. The pain - that of having a lit match burn down to your fingers, an image Sturges tellingly finds room for come the finale - rules out screwball comedy, because these lovers have too much at stake to be breezy, much less funny: the question they, and by extension the film, seems to be mulling over is this - to what extent in any relationship do you allow yourself to be seduced, and possibly made a sucker of?
The dinner jackets of the second half feel like a conscious effort to dress up this hurt, yet even here the protagonist finds himself on shaky ground: the dumped and dumped-upon Fonda's frequent pratfalls are precisely those of a helpless case falling against his better nature - not to mention a tie-in with the Fall the title suggests. It's not really a surprise, then, how much is left hanging as the end credits roll: everything that matters on screen is temporary and tenuous, at risk of collapse, as the world itself might well have seemed to cinemagoers of the early 1940s, and again to audiences today. It remains one of the great, timeless screen romances - in part because it addresses, in smart, adult fashion, those issues that still threaten to deprive young lovers everywhere of the earthly happiness that is their right.
The Lady Eve returns to selected cinemas tomorrow.