Another Man’s Poison (1951)

Another Mans Poison.jpg

I want him. I wanted him from the first moment I ever saw him. Mystery writer Janet Frobisher (Bette Davis) lives in Yorkshire and has been separated for years from her husband, a man with a criminal past. Her nearest neighbour is nosy veterinarian Dr. Henderson (Emlyn Williams). Janet has been having having an affair with Larry (Anthony Steel) who is years younger than her and he just happens to be engaged to marry her secretary Chris (Barbara Murray). When her estranged husband unexpectedly appears, Janet poisons him by administering medication given to her by Dr. Henderson for her horse. One of the deceased man’s criminal cohorts George (Gary Merrill) arrives as she’s preparing to dispose of the body in the local lake. When Chris and Larry arrive at the secluded house, the mysterious man, who has assisted her with her scheme, impersonates George, the long-absent spouse of Janet and Chris learns of the affair between Janet and Larry. When George kills her beloved horse Fury she sends him after Chris in an unsafe vehicle left at her front door by Henderson. He crashes, but survives and she determines on revenge … The night air teems with unexpected guests. Sounds like Shakespeare but isn’t. With additions to Val Guest’s screenplay by actor/playwright Williams (whose credits include The Corn is Green), this is a stage adaptation from Leslie Sands’ play Deadlock whose origins remain somewhat despite efforts to open it out and it lacks the visual panache in interiors that Hitchcock would manage to demonstrate with his take on Dial M for Murder. For all that, Davis bristles as a barnstorming man magnet, delighting in the viciousness of her mystery writer role and the woman’s insatiable desire for sex with her secretary’s fiancé. The barbs fly. Of course the second pairing of Davis and (now husband) Merrill is worth watching a year after they met and seemingly enacted the main couple’s relationship on All About Eve:  here there is real hatred between the two. She relishes the chance to play nasty and her manic laugh at the highly ironic conclusion is filled with gleeful appreciation, a creator of mystery entrapped by the machinations of her own deadly plot. We see some of the ingredients for Baby Jane right here. This is a narrative of barely suppressed, sometimes shockingly overt, violence and it’s unique in the canon of her work for that reason. This interesting instance of British film noir was produced by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who spent a number of years in the UK making independent movies and it was directed by Irving Rapper who had made the classic Now, Voyager with Davis a decade earlier. Shot on location in Yorkshire’s West Riding and at Nettlefold Studios by Robert Krasker, best known for his work on The Third Man. There’s an extremely witty use of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust on the soundtrack.  Out of evil cometh good. That is, occasionally

The Letter (1940)

The Letter theatrical.jpg

With all my heart, I still love the man I killed. In Singapore, Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), the wife of a rubber plantation administrator, shoots and kills a man, Geoff Hammond, claiming that he tried to take advantage of her. She is arrested and her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall) hires attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) to defend her. Her claim of self-defence is doubted by the locals. During the trial Howard uncovers an incriminating letter that casts doubt on Leslie’s story. The two become embroiled in a blackmail scheme involving a Malayan clerk Ong Chi Seng (Victor Sen Yung) and the dead man’s widow Mrs Hammond (Gale Sondergaard) … One of the great melodramas of the era, this Somerset Maugham adaptation by Howard Koch had already received an interpretation in 1929 with Jeanne Eagels in the leading role and Marshall had played Geoff Hammond. With the dream team of Davis and director William Wyler it became an opportunity for Warners to make an intense, lush festival of emotions concerning race and sex shot by Tony Gaudio, costumed by Orry-Kelly and scored by Max Steiner. Davis is simply unforgettable, as is the opening scene, when a shot rings out under a full moon …

Watch on the Rhine (1943)

Watch on the Rhine theatrical

I fight against fascism. That is my trade. Jack Warner acquired Lillian Hellman’s hit play for an enormous sum and her lover Dashiell Hammett adapted it for the screen. Bette Davis gets top billing but she’s just one in an ensemble and therefore a supporting player in this tale of anti-fascist activists in Washington in wartime. She plays Sara, the wife of German anti-Nazi Kurt Muller (Paul Lukas) who travel with their three children from Europe via Mexico back to her hometown to stay with her widowed mother (Lucile Watson) and brother David (Donald Woods) in a very upscale home. They have other houseguests: Teck De Brankovis (George Colouris) a smooth but desperate Romanian who lives off his wealthy wife Martha (Geraldine Fitzgerald, Davis’s Dark Victory co-star), a woman who is falling for David. Teck soon makes it clear he is a collaborator of the Nazis in Washington and rifles through Kurt’s briefcase threatening blackmail over his true identity.  As Chekhov once proved, if there’s a gun in the first act, it must go off in the third … This talky melodrama is a political tract that works in fits and starts. FDR fan Davis clashed with theatre director Herman Shumlin (who had staged it on Broadway) and argued against the casting of Watson, a Republican, who had established the role on stage. However Watson dominates every scene she’s in with an arresting presence. When she declares, Well we’ve been shaken out of the magnolias, you want to cheer. Very much of its time and terribly stagebound but it demonstrates a consciousness about goings-on in Europe and the wheeling and dealing of so-called diplomats on foreign soils at a time when it really mattered. To demonstrate their commitment to the project Warners refused to bow to pressure from the Hays Office and retained the original ending. They dropped most of the location backgrounds because they contained shots of Government buildings. Shumlin was a prolific stage director and also did Hellman’s The Little Foxes on Broadway. He made just one further film, Confidential Agent (1945). It is not noble. It is only the way I must live.

Deception (1946)

Deception 1946 theatrical.jpg

It’s like grand opera, only the people are thinner. The stars and director of Now, Voyager were happily reunited for this melodrama that has a definite inclination towards film noir. Pianist Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis) discovers that her former lover cellist Karel Novak (Paul Henreid) is not dead on a WW2 battlefield as she previously thought but alive and well and performing in NYC. When they reunite she doesn’t want him to know that she spent years as the mistress of sadistic composer Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains) whose voluminous loft she inhabits after becoming a kept woman. Hollenius tries to prise the couple apart following their marriage by getting nervous Karel to perform his Cello Concerto (written by studio composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold) and Christine’s lies go deeper and deeper to try and keep her husband from finding out the truth about her past … This adaptation of Louis Verneuil’s play by John Collier and Joseph Than changed Karel’s profession from painter and this permits the three neurotics at the centre of this love triangle to each perform music with a ferocity rarely seen on film (Davis had trained at piano, Henreid was hopeless at cello and other people’s arms are used to fake his part!) In fact it’s a musical in all but name which may have contributed to its relative box office failure since it is a paean to the classical mode.  The framing of Davis’ fabulously physical performance in these luxe interiors (her loft was based on Leonard Bernstein’s NYC pad) is a supreme example of classical Hollywood staging (art directed by Anton Grot) and her sparring with Rains is high comedy.  He relishes his role as this man tipping on the edges of crazy, stroking his Siamese cat and indulging in frightful bullying at the table in an hilariously horrible restaurant scene. The noir tropes of staircases and mirrors are brilliantly used to heighten Christine’s deceitful core, indeed the ending had to be changed to get past the censors so Christine’s actions must be punished! Director of photography Ernest Haller did his best for Davis whom he had been shooting since Dangerous as she was newly married, pregnant and under-confident of her jowly thirty-eight year old appearance. She was outfitted in stunning gowns and furs by Bernard Newman and when Henreid got his heart’s desire to become a director  years later she acted for him in one of her truly dualistic roles as identical twins in Dead Ringer which Haller also shot and you can read about it here:  http://offscreen.com/view/double_life_part_2.

In This Our Life (1942)

In This Our Life theatrical.jpg

You’ve never gotten over me and you never will. John Huston’s sophomore outing (after The Maltese Falcon) is this deranged adaptation of Ellen Glasgow’s Pulitzer-winning novel concerning race relations and sibling rivalry in the contemporary South, a subject on which she was rather an expert. Bette Davis is Stanley Timberlake who is about to marry lawyer Craig Fleming (George Brent, Davis’ frequent co-star) but runs off instead with her brother in law Dr Peter Kingsmill (Dennis Morgan). Stanley’s sister Roy (Olivia DeHavilland) divorces Peter but starts dating Craig in revenge and Peter starts to get nervous when Stanley goes kinda crazy at a roadhouse.  He becomes an alcoholic and commits suicide. Stanley returns to Virginia and wants to stop Roy from marrying Craig. She kills a mother and child while drunk and tries to pin the crime on a young black man Parry Clay (Ernest Anderson) working for the family and interning in Craig’s office to prepare for law school … What a wonderful showcase of the very opposing talents of Warners’ biggest stars. Both Davis and DeHavilland were having a bad time on this film:  Davis’ husband fell very ill and the company made it difficult for her to visit him then she fell ill;  DeHavilland was overworked and tired and felt overweight. Davis felt Huston favoured her co-star and drew attention to herself with her overwrought self-designed makeup scheme and her very busy costumes by Orry-Kelly. Her personification of this selfish nasty histrionic woman whose very physicality bespeaks narcissism is totally compelling;  her quasi-incestuous scene with her indulgent uncle William Fitzroy (Charles Coburn) is still shocking – he holds the power once he’s taken over the family business. That scene was directed by Raoul Walsh when Huston was called away on war duty (this was made between October and December 1941). But what made this film such a problem when it was released was its truthful depiction of the state of race relations and therefore created a distribution issue. There are many things wrong with Howard Koch’s adaptation but the busy-ness of the production design with its wildly clashing patterns, the strength of the ensemble scenes and the sheerly contrasting powers of the ladies playing opposite one another in their varying interpretations (madly hysterical versus quiet revenge) in some very good shot setups by Huston make this a very interesting example of Forties melodrama. Watch for Walter Huston as a bartender.

Death on the Nile (1978)

Death on the Nile US theatrical.jpg

La grande ambition des femmes est d’inspirer l’amour. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot gets to flex his little grey cells on a luxury cruise through Egypt that is filled with eccentrics, madwomen and murderers.  Peter Ustinov plays the beloved Belgian for the first time in this plush, epic adaptation by Anthony Shaffer which is as much black comedy as murder mystery. Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles) is the heiress who steals Simon Doyle (Simon McCorkindale) from her best friend Jackie (Mia Farrow) and the jilted one turns up on their honeymoon everywhere they stop – including Egypt. Poirot meets up with Colonel Race (David Niven) and a right motley crew of passengers on a paddle steamer tour, including a drunken romance writer Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury) with her long-suffering daughter Rosalie (Olivia Hussey); kleptomaniac socialite Marie von Schuyloer  (Bette Davis, in Baby Jane eyeliner) and her decidedly masculine assistant and travelling companion Miss Bowers (Maggie Smith); Linnet’s greedy lawyer Andrew Pennington (George Kennedy); Linnet’s decidedly frisky French maid Louise Bourget (Jane Birkin). Turns out everyone on board had a good reason for killing Linnet. There’s also Jon Finch, Jack Warden and Sam Wanamaker for good measure. While we see Aswan, the Pyramids, Karnak and the Sphinx, we enjoy the trials and tribulations as these people knock up against each other and what unspools when Linnet is eventually murdered. Seeing Lansbury strongarm Niven into a dance is a particular delight. This is a great cast playing with evident relish. Gorgeously costumed by Anthony Powell, beautifully lit and shot by Jack Cardiff,  typically well scored by Nino Rota and handled with pace and humour by director John Guillermin, this is a leisurely and colourful Sunday afternoon treat.

Payment on Demand (1951)

Payment  On Demand movie poster.jpg

Bette Davis was reunited with her A Stolen Life director Curtis Bernhardt for this divorce drama that sees her screen persona keenly picked apart and reconstituted as she squares off against husband Barry Sullivan. She’s the San Francisco socialite who’s worried about her daughter’s relationship with a lower class guy when hubby arrives home to tell her he wants to split. Perfectly judged flashbacks reveal the dissolution of their relationship from its earliest days in hardscrabble families through marriage, business, children and society, until the dread day when she is told by her friends that her beloved has been carrying on with a woman and “she’s not even young!” That woman is Frances Dee, a university professor with interests and taste until the private eye’s flashbulbs intrude. Davis goes hell for leather for the money she helped hubby make. The screenplay by Bernhardt and Bruce Manning cleverly interpellates the journey from brittle/skittish to brutal/scathing, a diad that the audience knew characterised Davis’ own growth as a star and her capacity for both vulnerability and cruelty. She plays it to the hilt with good support from Sullivan and in the film’s most potentially mawkish scene she is brilliant – with her back to camera. This encapsulates Davis’ acting persona and it’s a winner. For more on her dualistic performances you can see my essay on Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/double_life_part_1.

The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

The Watcher in the Woods movie poster.jpg

Or, Disney’s version of a horror movie. This adaptation of the novel by noted Gothic/YA author Florence Engel Randall was quite the thing when I was knee-high to a grasshopper and Bette Davis was there for the connoisseur. My Disney idol was Kim Richards but it’s her little sister Kyle who features here as Ellie the younger of two girls (the elder being Lynn-Holly Johnson as Jan) whose family has relocated to England.  They lease an old country house and the girls are haunted by the spirit of old crone Davis’ daughter who disappeared thirty years before, in what appears to have been some sort of teenagers’ initiation ceremony in a derelict church during a solar eclipse. Jan bears a startling resemblance to the missing girl, Karen, and sees flashes of blue light in the woods while Ellie appears to be hearing voices coming from the new family dog whom she has christened Nerak – which spells Karen backwards. The messages come frequently and they have to try to rescue Karen from another dimension during the next eclipse … Children’s author Mom (Carroll Baker) has to deal with the problem while composer Dad (David McCallum) heads to London to produce a musical. Director John Hough had some form with this blend of supernature and sci fi – being a veteran of the Witch Mountain movies starring Kim Richards and featuring one Bette Davis in the second entry, Return From Witch Mountain. There was some issue with the concluding scenes and in the second version the effects happened too quickly to make sense of the story while Vincent McEveety was then drafted in to do a version that was released in 1981. Personally I was thrilled to see my old heart throb Benedict Taylor turn up in the cast – remember him in Beau Geste on Sunday evenings? And The Far Pavilions! And My Brother Jonathan. And A Perfect Spy…  Dominic Guard appears (uncredited) in Ian Bannen’s role in the flashbacks. Guard is now a children’s author himself, amongst other things. I’m almost as thrilled to see Kyle Richards on a Raleigh Chopper. (And Georgina Hale as Karen, of course!)  Adapted by Brian Clemens, Harry Spalding and Rosemary Anne Sisson, soundtracked by Stanley Meyers and nicely shot by Alan Hume. This is quite fascinating.

Summer of ’42 (1971)

Summer_of_'42_POSTER.jpg

Oh, the humanity. I saw this at an impressionable age and it has stayed with me in a way that few films do. It also introduced me to the music of Michel Legrand. When I went away to college at 17 I stepped into a piano bar one evening and once I was sitting down the house musician played this theme, The Summer Knows:  instantly I felt more at ease in my own skin. It calls up all sorts of feelings of recognition, yearning, regret, hope, fear. What is it about this film? The music, certainly. The story of a boy’s sentimental education with a young Army wife who then becomes a war widow. The setting on Nantucket. The summer breezes blowing the grasses on the dunes. The waves, the waves, constantly forming the backdrop to experience. Now Voyager in the movie theatre. Jennifer O’Neill’s incredible beauty. Gary Grimes’ awkwardness as Hermie. Jerry Houser’s typical boy, Oscy. And of course the bespectacled Oliver Conant as Benjie, whose sex manual gives the boys the keys to the kingdom, as they see the world of girls. TV writer Herman Raucher narrates his own story:  because this is what happened to him aged 14. He was persuaded to novelize his screenplay and it was a bestseller before the film’s release, going through many print runs. He got ten per cent of the film’s gross because Warners weren’t sure it would make money:  it never quit and he would never agree to a remake. Robert Mulligan directed. It is a remarkably resonant and touching work and it’s what Shelley Duvall is watching on TV in The Shining. There’s a sequel that I’ve never seen. This will do. It’s perfect.

Now, Voyager (1942)

Now Voyager Poster.jpg

All I have is a faded corsage and an empty bottle of perfume … Sob! Most people’s favourite Bette Davis picture, this tale of a bullied daughter of Boston brahmin stock, sent away to recover from a mother-induced nervous breakdown only to return a woman of the world with a married man, is pure classical Hollywood. Olive Higgins Prouty’s bestseller of an ugly thirtysomething duckling who turns into a mature and lovely swan is the stuff of Cinderella transformations and all the stops were pulled out to ensure its success. Casey Robinson was the steady hand deployed to manage the emotions and tap all the appropriate responses in what would have been censor-baiting material. He was the greatest screenwriter at Warners’ disposal, starting his career with Captain Blood (1935) which made Errol Flynn a star and created a tone for all action-adventure films to follow. He started writing films for Bette Davis two years later with It’s Love I’m After and followed it with the great Dark Victory, the film which properly turned Davis into a feminine star. He said it helped to know which actor he was writing for because then everything was in their voice “and Bette Davis, how I heard her voice!”  Irving Rapper directed,Gladys Cooper is Mommie Dearest,  Claude Rains is the suave and suaver psychiatrist and Paul Henreid does the two-cigarette act with aplomb. Golly this is great.