In 1942, audiences going to see a Spencer Tracy–Katharine Hepburn movie surely expected to encounter some on-screen romance, but although Keeper of the Flame denied movie-goers of those light-hearted dramatics, it did pack a wallop otherwise. The movie had traces of the previous year’s stand-out film Citizen Kane but in large park harkened back to story elements found in 1939’s Rebecca.
The film opens on a car speeding down a rainy forest road and ultimately taking a dive off a broken bridge. Next we are entreated to a slew of newspaper headlines shouting the death of the world’s most loved man, Robert Forrest. Reporters are in town for the funeral and among them is Tracy’s war correspondent Stephen O’Malley, who has returned to the U.S. especially for this story. He is not, however, interested in shooting out a quick piece on the funeral like his fellow reporters, but is instead after material for a book on the man’s life. To achieve this, however, he must interview Forrest’s wife, Christine (Hepburn), who has refused to take any visitors. Stephen sneaks onto the Forrest estate with the help of the gatekeeper’s boy (Darryl Hickman), who is distraught thinking he had caused his hero’s death by not being able to warn him the bridge was out. It is from here that we begin to suspect there is more to this story than a car accident.
After walking into the house uninvited, Stephen gains a surprise audience of Christine, who throws him out. She is counseled by Forrest’s secretary, however, to talk to the man or else raise suspicion. Christine does invite the man back and promises to help him but is rather guarded and restricted in the information she provides. When Stephen notices an old armory on the property, the woman sneaks off to destroy all papers found therein.
As the story progresses we are presented with more and more questions with no answers rising to the surface about any of them. This perfect man seems to have some dark secret –a MacGuffin of sorts– and the question of whether his death was murder floats about as we try to find motivation for such an act. Thankfully, Christine reveals the horrible secret that answers all questions at the film’s end, and it is a doozy.
As I mentioned, I could not help but draw comparisons to Rebecca and Citizen Kane while enjoying Keeper of the Flame. Like the latter, it features the death of a public figure and the search into his life by a reporter. Like Rebecca, Forrest was an adored figure, the accident of whose death (in a storm) is somewhat in question. The story also offers a devoted spouse and staff and possible cousin-lovers, not to mention a small, mysterious building on the property.
Despite its similarities to other great films, Keeper of the Flame stands on its own as a fantastic mystery. One finds it hard to keep track of all the questions that arise and so simply must go with the flow and have faith the answers will be spelled out plainly at the end. The compounding mysteries also make it difficult to even suspect who might have wanted Forrest dead and by what means made that happen. Even when Stephen finds what he knows to be the damning evidence that the accident was murder of a sort, we still do not fully know what it means. I cannot rave about Keeper of the Flame enough. It is a masterpiece, to be sure.
The MacGuffin: The motivation for Robert Forrest’s death/his secret. It is a MacGuffin because it does not really matter what it is, but it drives the entire plot of the movie.