"The Empire State Building is the closest thing to heaven in this city..."
An Affair to Remember is a movie that tells the audience everything they need to know with its title alone. Carey Grant and Deborah Kerr are both upper-class people on a luxury liner to New York where they accidentally cross paths and fall in love. The only problem is that they are both currently in relationships. Grant’s character, Nickie Ferrante, is unhappy in his relationship with a wealthy woman who pays his way through life. Terry McKay (Kerr) is considering getting married to her boyfriend in the city, but realizes that she has compromised herself in order to appease him. Boy and girl meet, comically try to keep their relationship hidden and then go their separate ways. But not before making a secret agreement.
Just before they split in New York, the couple-to-be agrees to meet at the Empire State Building in exactly one year. They have decided to be together, but need this time to “find themselves” and end their respective relationships. Though the first half of the movie takes place on the boat trip, the real movie begins with this story. After a year goes by, Nickie is waiting for his lover at the top of the building. Terry is running late and, while looking up at the building in wonderment, is hit by a car and paralyzed at the waist. Nickie does not find out about the accident until a long time later, but he never gives up on finding Terry. It is a tragic sounding, but ultimately inspiring, love story….but…
What really bothers me about An Affair to Remember is that the two main characters unapologetically have an AFFAIR TO REMEMBER. They are away from their partner while on a cruise ship and manage to fall in love with another person. Maybe this just hits home for me, but cheating is not really an okay thing. We should not be cheering for these two people while they are being kind of sleazy. Grant and Kerr are beautiful people, but it still isn’t nice to go around breaking hearts. I understand that a lot of romantic comedies center on a female in the wrong relationship who meets the right guy and they end up together with a kiss before the credits, but outright cheating is different than dumping your boyfriend for a new man. Most people will not even see this point as significant, but it bothered me for the entire length of the movie.
Even with that unlikeable aspect, Kerr and Grant still have impeccable chemistry. I am immediately reminded of the hilarious The Lady Eve when Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck meet on a boat and fall in love. Maybe there is something about an open ocean that makes people want to be in love – because every boat-romance I have ever seen features relationships that are delightful to watch. Maybe that is why the audience can blatantly disregard the character’s infidelities.
Director Leo McCarey also had a significant amount of input on the screenplay, and it has proven to be a timeless work in romance movie history. The planned meeting at the top of the Empire State Building was borrowed by the huge box-office smash Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and the whole idea of providing endless frustrating obstacles for love has become a staple in popular film. An Affair to Remember does not allow anything to be easy. Nickie and Terry have to work to find each other again and have to work even harder to conceal their feelings.
In one memorable scene, the two are talking in Terry’s apartment. She still has not told Nickie that she is paralyzed and remains sitting on the couch with her legs covered by a blanket. She avoids telling him why she was not able to meet him on that fateful day because she is simply too proud to let him be with her out of sympathy. It is a perfect example of the lover’s drama that has become so common in romantic filmmaking.
On a totally different note, there is one scene in An Affair to Remember that stands out as unintentionally hilarious and (un?)intentionally racist. After her accident, Terry works as a youth choir director for the local church. As her choir is singing a song about being nice to everybody the only two black kids break into a tap dancing solo. I have no idea if this scene is supposed to have any racial undertone, but after seeing Do the Right Thing it is nearly impossible to not consider it. I watched this moment with my jaw loosely dropped onto the floor.
An Affair to Remember may feature some morally unfit people, but the love story is compelling and the acting is spot on. It is a pleasure to watch Grant and Kerr work together, and McCarey’s direction is a sold step up from my only other experience with his work (Duck Soup). It is a simple, straightforward film that served as a heavy influence on the romantic genre. It may be a bit chick-flicky for some, but it is still entertaining.
An Affair to Remember: B-