If you’re around New York this weekend, you can catch a rare treat on the big, beautiful Walter Reade Theater screen on Sunday at 6:40. As part of Film Society of Lincoln Center’s surprising but welcome Jennifer Jones retrospective, they’ll be showing William Dieterle’s splendid 1948 mood piece Portrait of Jennie, one of the most haunting Hollywood films of any era. The terms “hypnotic” and “spellbinding” may be two of our most overused shorthands in film criticism, but they certainly, even quintessentially, apply here: this is an entrancing, eerie work, featuring Joseph Cotten as a dissatisfied, uninspired painter living in New York City who happens upon the bizarrely naive and coquettish little girl Jennie (Jennifer Jones, initially playing well before her years) one day in Central Park. Seemingly unattached to family or friends, Jennie appears to be something of a free-floating blithe spirit, and Cotten takes her on as something of a muse—yet as he becomes more inspired, Jennie becomes an increasingly vague, transitory figure, aging rapidly with each successive meeting.
Dieterle paints his entire film in a gauzy haze, as if it’s springing forth from some barely recollected memory: New York itself is evoked as a timeless shapeshifter, rendering the entire film as an almost period piece. Indeed, as it becomes more plausible that Cotten and Jones’s romance is being enacted in the time and space between two separate eras, the film grows ever more unsure of its temporal bearings, leading up to a rainswept lighthouse ending that brings it crashing back down to reality. Cotten’s artistic struggles and self-doubts are painted boldly but never in a natteringly solipsistic way (as usual, Cotten manages to be both ethereal and sarcastic at once), and Jones, inhabiting her character’s many different ages, moves beyond mimicry into genuine existential dread. A sort-of inverse Picture of Dorian Gray, Portrait of Jennie makes for a substantial (if, at 86 minutes, slim) inquiry into what informs the creative process, and Dieterle responds with a luxurious art-work of his own, brilliantly employing dazzling, contemplative, Oscar-winning visual effects, elegantly appointed cinematography by Joseph August, and a Debussy-inspired score by Dmitri Tiomkin. Watch it on the big screen and get, yes, spellbound.