Sunday, December 9, 2018

A not-so-cold December

Working my way through the backlog of movies that I recorded during TCM's Black Experience on Film spotlight back in October, I'm up to A Warm December.

Sidney Poitier plays Dr. Matt Younger, who at the beginning of the movie is commandeering an ambulence to get to Dulles Airport in Washington DC so he can catch a plane to London on vacation with his daughter Stefanie (Yvette Curtis); he's a widower so Mom is out of the picture. That, and bring his motorbike. When he lands in London, he's met by Dr. Barlow (George Baker). Apparently, Younger started a charity that does medical work in underprivileged areas all around the world, and Barlow works for that charity too. But Matt insists this is a vacation, not a working trip.

On the way to the hotel, we see a black woman being pursued by somebody who is of one of the East Asian nationalities, a pursuit shown in a way that makes it look as if this is going to be some sort of spy movie. The fact that the woman wants Matt to stand between her and the Asian man reinforces this. Matt is intrigued by the beautiful woman, and when he sees her again, this time being watched by an older white guy in a museum, he wants to get to know her. But she's decidedly coy about meeting Matt.

That is, until Matt and Stefanie go to a show of African dance. Among the dignitaries showing up is the Ambassador of Torunda (Earl Cameron) and his niece Catherine (Esther Anderson). Matt realizes that Catherine is the mysterious woman he's kept running into. No wonder she didn't want to see him: she's got official duties.

Eventually, however, she does relent and sees Matt privately, and we can see why she's been of two minds about everything. Not only is she the ambassador's niece, she's on Torunda's economic development council, and has to use her beauty and knowledge of foreign languages to woo various first- and second-world countries for financial aid, and those official duties keep her from seeing people. Like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, however, she wants to get out, which is why she starts seeing Matt.

Things take a turn for the worse on one of those trysts, however. Catherine starts wincing in pain, claiming nausea, although thanks to the music cues we can tell something more serious is going on. It happens again, and Matt, being a doctor, decides to do an impromptu examination, and confirms his suspicions that Catherine has sickle-cell anemia. It would also explain a lot of the other characters' motivations.

Sickle-cell anemia is treated here as an even more life-shortening disease than it is in real life, although since the movie came out in 1973 things may have changed in the intervening decades. Catherine is only 27, but it's felt that it would be a miracle if she makes it to 35. Matt doesn't seem to care, as he loves Catherine and wants to see her whenever he can. Not only that, but he'd like to take her back to America with him. Catherine begins to fall in love with Matt, and loves Stefanie even more. But she has her official duties, and isn't certain if she's want to die early on the people she loves. Better to leave them now with the good memories and go back to Torunda. Which will she choose?

I found A Warm December to be a nice, unassuming movie that handles its grown-up issues with sensitivity for the most part. I don't know what a sickle-cell attack would look like in real life, but what's shown here in Catherine's climactic attack out in the country left me laughing at a scene that came across melodramatic and overdone. The movie has some other minor flaws, such as the music cues that I already mentioned. Sidney Poitier's direction is also a problem at times, as he's putting more attention on himself than on the story.

Still, I'd recommend A Warm December to anybody who wants an intelligent movie. You can get it on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

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