(Click here for information on the 2021 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. This week, the third selection Beyond the Forest by Stuart Engstrand)
Truly we are having an endless summer here at the Imaginary Summer Book Club, as we roll into December with a long-lost rural pulp potboiler!
Best known in the film incarnation that followed hot on the heels of the book’s publication, starring Bette Davis delivering an immortal line… although in the intervening years the film has become so difficult to find, it may be more well-known for being re-quoted in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
As the novel opens, young(ish) and beautiful Rosa Moline has realized that she has miscalculated in marrying the leading citizen of the northern Wisconsin lumber town of her birth: Dr. Lewis Moline has turned out to be a flop, both as a husband-provider and a physician. Rosa has joined Lew and a few locals on a hunting trip to poach beaver- after hassling her husband for the silver fox coat of her dreams, this is his preposed solution: having the townspeople pay off their medical debts by hunting, tanning and tailoring a beaver coat. Rosa is not impressed, and openly attempts to seduce the much-younger farmhand Victor as Lew pretends to sleep. Lew finally puts a stop to this as he suddenly remembers he left a patient with a troubled pregnancy about to go into labor back in town.
Rosa announces her intention to stay with Victor and Moose, their trail guide and caretaker for Latimer Lodge, the luxe digs of the local lumber magnate. It is Rosa’s intention to stay until Neil Latimer shows up and she can work her charms on him.
And that is the set up for the first part of the book: Rosa hangs around, verbally sparring with Moose, who is also the town drunk. Moose’s long-lost daughter, very refined thanks to her mother’s advantageous remarriage, shows up to live with her father and start a romance with Victor; Rosa’s father, who has backed his daughter’s scheming her whole life also shows up, but warns her about Latimer: “He’ll just sleep with you, and then go away. That’s what these rich fellows do. Money marries money.”
Which is what eventually happens when Latimer, who is very grabby for a supposed gentleman, eventually arrives ahead of his hunting party. While he assures Rosa that he is expediting his divorce, he also warns that there can be no hint of scandal before it is finalized. Lew steadily becomes more possessive and jealous, and also distracted from his medical duties. When he flees the bedside of a patient in a blind panic to search for his wife, Moose is the one to bring him back, in the typically frank manner of the book:
“You’re coming back here now. If Rosa was out to get laid tonight, then it’s happened. She wasn’t waiting for you to break in… The worst that could have happened is that Rosa had a bit of intercourse. Women usually survive that.”
After Latimer departs, Rosa agonizes as the weeks pass with no word from him, which drives her right back into the arms of her husband… for the time being.
The film is largely told in flashback, and centers around Rosa’s testimony at a coroner’s inquest, after Latimer returns and Moose is shot and killed while leading a hunting party. Played by Bette Davis, who is neither particularly young (she was 40) nor conventionally beautiful (although in an unconvincing black wig, she is certainly stunning), Rosa is much more a traditionally ruthless femme fatale, stopping at nothing (including murder) to get out of that crummy town. Lew Moline (who is always Lewis on film) is also considerably softened, played by Joseph Cotten as a dedicated small-town doctor who just can’t bring himself to force his patients to pay for his services.
When Latimer finally returns, Rosa is newly pregnant with Lew’s child, throwing a wrench into their reunion. On film, when Moose threatens to reveal her condition to Latimer, Rosa murders him in cold blood. In the book, things are a little trickier: Lew is delighted that a baby will chain Rosa to him for life; when she escapes to the nearest city to seek an abortion, she finds that Lew has called literally every doctor and given them her description and instructions to refuse her one.
When the freshly-divorced Latimer announces his honorable intentions, Rosa plots to get him into bed as quickly as possible to pass off the child as his; when he further offers to take her to Mexico for a quickie divorce she jumps at the offer, only held back by Latimer’s petulance about not being the first man to bag a deer on the hunting trip. Which is how Moose is shot: Rosa is rushed and careless and wanting to teach Latimer a lesson, and takes aim at the first deer she sees, which is actually Moose’s daughter’s doeskin cap- he throws himself in front of the bullet, and his death is truly an accident, and the inquest becomes barely a footnote.
But it holds up Rosa’s departure with Latimer, as they now have to wait for this scandal to die down. Desperate to end her pregnancy, she throws herself over the side of a cliff to induce a miscarriage.
The film has acquired a camp reputation (that WIG!), but I don’t think it is entirely warranted. Davis has some scenes in which she pulls off some amazingly subtle bits of acting: watch her face when she learns that she is pregnant and expresses her feelings as “not glad, and not not-glad”.
On the other hand, there are a few really florid set pieces, such as the famous shot of her posing in her bedroom window, as the lumberyard’s incinerator blazes away in the background, symbolizing… something.
And in the film’s final scene, she approaches Baby Jane territory, as she suffers from non-specific miscarriage-induced fever, and wills herself out of bed and to her vanity table, smears her face with makeup and literally drags herself into the street and to the railroad station, where she dies beside the train tracks, the last train out of town thundering past her. Now THAT’S an ending!
BUT! Rosa’s ultimate demise in the book is about a hundred times more horrifying and plays out without a drop of irony.
After throwing herself over the side of the cliff, Rosa picks herself up and seems to be in pretty good shape- except that she’s impaled her abdomen on a small branch. While feeling little pain, it only then dawns on her that’s married to the only doctor in town and that he’s a total incompetent.
Aware of all the different things Lew could do to accidentally-on-purpose kill her while she’s under ether for the operation, she is only vaguely aware of Lew disposing of her miscarried fetus, and far more concerned that he’ll use unsterilized instruments to operate.
When she finally comes to, Lew confesses he couldn’t go through with the “accident” and leaves Rosa under the care of her maid. But, since he is still a terrible doctor, he doesn’t notice the signs of tetanus until lockjaw starts to set in. The final pages are agonizing, as Rosa fights against her seizing and convulsing muscles, to use her last bit of strength to scrawl LEW MURDERED ME in the dust on her nightstand… and then watches helplessly as her maid wipes the message away.
How do we feel about Rosa Moline in 2021? Kim Morgan discusses the movie-Rosa in the context of the femme fatale trope, as a woman whose ambition far outstrips her circumstance: “this idea that the world is not theirs for the taking, but why shouldn’t it be?”
Book-Rosa is more sympathetic; she wants too much, but those wants are not unreasonable in the context of her situation: she wants out of her terrible marriage with her dumb husband, she wants out of her suffocating company town, she wants an exciting romance with a rich man, she wants a silver fox coat. She doesn’t want her dumb husband’s baby. In the book she doesn’t even want to get away with murder, and her excruciating death certainly doesn’t seem deserved.
Odds & Ends Department: The film is also notable for the performance of African-American actress Dona Drake as Davis’s “Indian” maid, Jenny. Drake had a long career in small roles as “exotic” types (Native Americans, Polynesians, “Latins”) and a career as a bandleader in the 1930s and 40s. While Jenny has a very minor role throughout most of the book, in the film she serves as a doppelganger for Rosa, a proto-juvenile delinquent dressed in jeans and a work shirt, snarling out almost as many good one-liners as Davis.
Availability: The Signet paperback pictured seems to be the edition widely available used; it is the one I have and not until I finished it, did I notice that it includes a note that it is “abridged with the author’s approval to make possible production in this form”!
The film is also difficult to find; as far as I can tell it was released on VHS in the late 1990s, and that’s it for home media in the U.S. I was able to get a “Region 0” DVD copy with Italian subtitles that was released as Peccato, which translates as the very-to-the-point SIN.