Grey Gardens (2009) (TVM)

Grey Gardens 2009

Everyone thinks and feels differently as the years pass by. Long Island, the mid-70s. The documentary filmmakers Albert (Arye Gross) and David Maysles (Justin Louis) are showing some of the footage they’ve shot about former members of NYC high society 79-year old Edith Bouvier Beale (Jessica Lange), the sister of Black Jack Bouvier, father of Jackie Kennedy (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her daughter 57-year old Little Edie (Drew Barrymore) to the pair. The women are living in a decrepit dirty house in East Hampton filled with cats and other stray animals and we learn how they wound up in poverty without electricity and running water, starting in the Thirties when Little Edie refused to marry any pig-headed momma’s boys bachelors and wanted a career on the stage. When her father Phelan (Ken Howard) divorces her mother she lives in the city and tries out for shows and models and falls into an adulterous relationship with Julius ‘Cap’ Krug (Daniel Baldwin) a married member of Truman’s administration. Her father tries to end it but it’s Cap who finishes with Edie and she retires to the beach house effectively replacing the attentions of her mother’s former lover, children’s tutor Gould (Malcolm Gets) and never leaves …  I don’t think you see yourself as others see you. In 1975 Albert and David Maysles released their eponymous documentary about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis’s aunt and cousin and people were horrified. It was deemed tasteless and exploitative, its stars clearly not fully compos mentis and their sad lives in a state of utter disarray and poverty. What it lacked was context and that sin of omission is repaired here as we enjoy a series of flashbacks starting in 1936 when Little Edie is such a loser on the husband-hunting trail that would settle her for life while her parents’ marriage falls apart – a situation that would eventually leave her mother and herself penniless and isolated. It’s rare to see a TV movie made with such care and complexity; the word apoplectic appears at key points and has a different resonance on each occasion. Perhaps the makers understood the term palimpsest. This certainly fills the gaps the initial documentary leaves but it also restages certain scenes from Grey Gardens (1975) and the framing story as the women watch clips of their lives unspooling on the wall of the decaying house elicits some priceless reactions by the mother and daughter. This is really a story of women who are left behind and the limited options available even to the supposedly fortunate daughters of the very wealthy:  a priest reporting to Phelan Beale about Little Edie’s behaviour at a party sets the ball rolling disastrously. It’s a deeply felt film about performance on several levels and Barrymore is quite astonishing playing Little Edie in different phases of her life. Her failed debutante, girl about town and finally recluse are brilliantly developed. Her devastation and consequent alopecia when Krug tells her she has naïvely mistaken their sexual escapades for a special relationship is heartbreaking. The possibilities for misunderstandings multiply over the decades and Barrymore masters that flat affectless Boston brahmin drawl, offsetting the emotions in counter intuitive fashion. The final performance for a gay crowd at a NYC club before she leaves the State for good is good natured. Maybe she was in on the joke – at last. Throughout she seems to drift in and out of different kinds of consciousness. We know she definitely can’t stand another winter in the freezing cold of Long Island. She is matched in a different register by Lange whose role requires quite a different set of nuances not to mention a love of cats. There’s a very enlightening sequence when the newspapers break the shocking story about Jackie O’s sad cousins living in squalor and the woman herself visits and promises to have the place redecorated. Little Edie delights in lying to her that she should have been First Lady instead if Joe Kennedy Jr had lived despite having only seen him once at a party. Jackie sadly agrees:  not the anticipated reaction. The Edies enjoy the deceit, setting the scene for their final reconciliation when they finally forgive each other for the destruction of their lives. Perhaps justice is finally done for these eccentrics whose destinies were dictated by men. Written by Patricia Rozema and director Michael Sucsy. Grey Gardens is my home. It’s the only place where I feel completely myself

What A Carve Up! (1961)

What a Carve Up

Aka No Place Like Homicide! Ring up Madame Tussaud’s to see if anyone’s missing. Inoffensive Ernie Broughton (Kenneth Connor) is summoned to an isolated rural mansion to spend the night at his family’s ancestral home following the death of his uncle Gabriel. He is accompanied by his gadfly friend Syd Butler (Sid James). They arrive in the fog where they encounter a spooky butler Fisk (Michael Gough) and other members of the squabbling family:  cousin Guy (Dennis Price), lovely Linda (Shirley Eaton), Malcolm (Michael Gwynne) and eccentric aunt Janet (Valerie Taylor).  Sinister solicitor Everett Sloane (!) (Donald Pleasence) reads the will – which has a big surprise. As the night wears on, they find themselves targeted by a killer who seems determined to pick them off one by one until finally a police officer (Philip O’Flynn) arrives from the nearest village … Kindly lower your voice to a scream at least. Almost better known now as the inspiration for Jonathan Coe’s novel of the same name, this cult item from the Carry On team is overshadowed by the legendary Carry on Screaming! five years later but is still nutty fun. You’d expect that from a screenplay co-written by farceur Ray Cooney with Tony Hilton, adapting The Ghoul by Frank King and the only surprise is that the director is the venerable documentarian Pat Jackson.  Indebted to the Ur-narrative of The Cat and the Canary we know that there can never be a reading of a will without a body count and there are lots of cheap laughs as well as well-placed thrills. Connor is terrific as scaredy cat Ernie and there are nice touches, like giving him squeaking shoes when he’s meeting his upper crust family for the first time: Wish I was back in the flat reading The Case of the Battered Blonde. James is good for a dirty laugh – as ever. Lots of fun.  I really must insist on your staying here tonight

 

The Wrong Box (1966)

The Wrong Box

He who Fate sees fit to favour. The Finsbury brothers, Masterman (John Mills) and Joseph (Ralph Richardson), are the last two surviving members of a sixty-two year old tontine [a pool of money/investment scheme] that will pay a huge sum to whomever lives longest. Hoping to bankroll his perpetually bewildered grandson Michael (Michael Caine), Masterman asks Joseph to visit with the intention of killing him. However Joseph’s two scheming nephews John (Dudley Moore) and Morris (Peter Cook) also want the money. and mean to keep Joseph alive long enough to stake their claim. When they think Joseph has died en route to seeing his brother, they attempt to cover it up but they reckon without the complicating factor of Masterman’s apparent death, the intervention of Michael when he realises that Masterman has killed Joseph and the arrival of the Salvation Army led by Mrs Hackett (Irene Handl) who assume Masterman has attempted suicide in the Thames and return him to his home. Then there are questions about the whereabouts of the notorious Bournemouth Strangler …  One should always broaden one’s horizons. Adapted from the 1889 novel by Robert Louis Stevenson co-written with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, the screenplay by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove is a frequently hysterical and witty black comedy filled with incredible lines and boasting great performances – Peter Sellers has a marvellous couple of scenes as an aiurophile doctor, concluding with him blotting his signature using the bottom of a cute kitten called Mervyn. I specialise in rare marine diseases of the spleen. Mills and Richardson play the brothers to the hilt – an eccentric and a drag – Shut up, you pedantic boring old poop! It’s dotted with hilarious incidents including a chase involving horse-drawn hearses but the butler Peacock (Wilfrid Lawson, brilliant) has the best bits and Nanette Newman’s (Julia) romance with handsome Caine is choreographed to a gorgeous romantic theme composed by John Barry. Extremely funny with a superlative titles sequence – just watch what happens when Queen Victoria (Avis Bunnage) knights someone. Look out for Nicholas Parsons and Valentine Dyall among the first victims in a cast that represents most of the best comic performers of the era including Tony Hancock who turns up as a detective and that’s Juliet Mills as the cross-dressing Lesbian on a train. Directed by Bryan Forbes (in the third of his four films with Caine) and shot at Pinewood and in Bath with some very funny camera setups from cinematographer Gerry Turpin. Lawson sadly died aged 66 five months after this was released. He’s just extraordinary here and steals every scene he’s in. There are in certain parts of this city men – unscrupulous men! – who will perform unsavoury tasks

Noose for a Lady (1953)

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We’re all of us a little delicate these days. Margaret Hallam (Pamela Alan) is sentenced to death for murdering her manipulative husband and her cousin Simon Gale (Dennis Price) arrives from Uganda determined to prove her innocence with only seven days to clear her name. He works with her stepdaughter Jill (Rona Anderson) to investigate all lines of enquiry including everyone in Margaret’s immediate circle of family, friends and neighbours.  He encounters a situation that could implicate any one of their number because the victim knew each of their past indiscretions and was practising extortion. Meanwhile the clock is ticking and the hangman’s noose awaits but as Simon closes in on the real culprit they start tying up loose ends …  Let’s stop theorizing. A decent B-movie whodunnit, Price sleuthing Poirot-style with the theatrical touch that he gathers all possible suspects at the beginning so that we then follow each plot thread with a little foreknowledge until the twist ending. The revealing of a slew of personal secrets gives a melodramatic spin to things, making it logical that each character has skin in the killing game – except of course more lives are at stake. There’s a shifty housekeeper (Doris Yorke), a man with a sleeping pill habit (Charles Lloyd-Pack), a woman with an illegitimate child (Alison Leggatt), a nasty old gossip (Esma Cannon) and so forth. To heighten tension, the policeman (George Merritt) is given a spot of insight that you’d think would be attributed to Price, whose usual villainous edge is toned down to permit him to play decent and enjoy a spot of romance with Vanessa Lane (Melissa Stribling). The gang is assembled again at the climax, Christie-style and even if you see the outcome telegraphed in advance, it plays very well and there are some good exchanges. Adapted from Gerald Verner’s novel The Whispering Woman by Rex Rienits and stylishly directed by the prolific writer Wolf Rilla in his debut:  this was the first of four features he made in 1953 alone. Shot at Merton Park. So much for Chesterton. This is a miracle that isn’t going to happen

Downton Abbey (2019)

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It’s like living in a factory. It’s 1927. Excitement is high at Downton Abbey when the Crawley family headed by Robert, Earl Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) learn that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are coming to visit. Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) is perturbed that Maud, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) Queen Mary’s lady-in-waiting, is included in the tour. Maud is Robert’s cousin and her closest relative. The two families have fallen out over who should inherit Maud’s estate, Robert or Maud’s maid, Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton). Tom Branson (Allen Leech) makes nice with a stranger known only as Major Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore) who he believes is keeping him under surveillance for his Irish Republican sympathies. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) scrambles to get the household ready but butler Barrow (Robert James-Collier) is proving inadequate to the task and Carson (Jim Carter) is quickly summoned out of retirement. But trouble arises when the cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), Daisy (Sophie McShera), housekeeper Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and the rest of the servants learn that the king and queen travel with their own chefs and attendants – so when the Royal Page of the Backstairs (David Haig) arrives with the entourage the stage is set for a showdown below stairs Secrets always muddle things. Julian Fellowes returns to the big screen with a country house tale nearly two decades after Gosford Park which inspired the hugely successful Downton Abbey TV show in the first place. There’s less plot than one of those episodes and it picks up approximately 18 months after the last one but the characters are so barely skimmed over and it all looks so pretty you’ll hardly notice – the only possible controversy is with an attempted royal assassination, trouble with the monarch’s daughter Princess Mary’s (Kate Phillips) marriage, Barrow’s trip to the Twenties equivalent of a gay rave, Lady Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) mysterious retreat from independence into the world of ladies who lunch (which she only addresses late in the story) and a lightly trailed retirement of the world’s favourite pantomime Dame Maggie who lands all of the best lines. Well she would, wouldn’t she. Even Isis the dog makes a return albeit she isn’t called. Nary a hint of revolution save a mention of the General Strike which leads the Dowager Countess to observe that she noticed her maid was rather curt to her. Featherweight entertainment, as light and fluffy and non-calorific as one of Mrs Patmore’s soufflés. Directed by Michael Engler.  I know I’m going to forget my lines

 

Under the Cherry Moon (1986)

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The more you drink, the better I sound. Gigolo cousins Christopher Tracy (Prince) and  Tricky (Jerome Benton) swindle wealthy French women as they pursue musical careers on the Riviera. The situation gets complicated when Christopher falls in love with heiress Mary Sharon (Kristin Scott Thomas) after planning to swindle her when he finds out that she inherits a $50 million trust fund on her 21st birthday. Mary’s shipping magnate father Isaac (Steven Berkoff) disapproves of the romance and proves a difficult adversary. Meanwhile, Christopher rivals Tricky for Mary’s affections…  I want a girl who’s smart, a girl who can teach me things. I hate stupid women. You know why? You marry a stupid girl, you have stupid kids. You don’t believe me? Follow a stupid kid home and see if somebody stupid don’t answer the door. Nutty, silly, completely nonsensical and entertaining in ways that somehow seem very Eighties – it could only be the work of that great musical genius, Prince. With highly demonstrative acting that is straight out of the silent era, a debut by Scott Thomas, a nod to the Beatles’ movies in the casting of Victor Spinetti, and a raft of extraordinary music, this notoriously earned a hoard of Golden Raspberries while being labelled a Vanity Project but is all about romance and the kind of class zaniness directly attributable to Thirties screwball. Analysing performance in such a deliberately OTT eye-rolling production is beside the point. It’s all about pastiche and homage and is as fluffy and adorable as a kitten with daft dialogue and a game cast whose collective tongue is firmly in cheek. Originally Mary Lambert was set to direct but Prince took over those duties, crediting her as creative consultant.  Written by Becky Johnston; with classic songs by Prince and the Revolution and orchestration by Clare Fischer. Total fun.  I do nothing professionally, I do everything for fun

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

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Should you murder me, remember you murder your sister… and you murder your queen!  Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Catholic Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne with the aim of also taking the English throne which is her birthright, guided by her adviser Bothwell (Martin Compston). However, Scotland and England fall under the rule of her cousin, the compelling Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Each young Queen beholds her ‘sister’ in fear and fascination. Mary has to deal with the ambitions of her bastard half-brother James Murray (James McArdle) and succumbs to the charms of the bisexual Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) in order to become a mother but his father (Brendan Coyle) has designs on power. Her reign attracts the hatred of Protestant reformer John Knox (David Tennant) who stirs up the natives against their tolerant Catholic ruler and calls her a whore. Elizabeth’s adviser Henry Cecil (Guy Pearce) carries out her bid to assist in driving a civil war designed to remove Mary from the throne… Do not play into their hands. Our hatred is precisely what they hope for. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you. Adapted from John Guy’s biography by Beau Willimon, it may seem hasty to declare that despite its raft of historical inaccuracies this still has a lot to recommend it, even if its PC multiverse of many races and choose-your-own-perversion plays into the right-on millennial world rather than the well documented dour backdrop of sixteenth-century Scotland (things are ever thus there…). Willimon is of course responsible for Netflix’s House of Cards and knows his way around politics and other games of thrones so the focus on the women struggling against the counsel of conniving men drives the drama forward while the plotting literally gallops apace. With Tennant doing Knox as the Comical Ali of fundamentalist Protestantism the odds of us supporting the bastard English Queen are low to zero, despite the crosscutting suggesting links both emotional and physical between these young rivals. The Virgin Queen is in fact more in touch with the reality of both of their situations, surrounded by controlling men, as the fabricated meeting between them (a liberty also taken in the 1971 version) clarifies: she recognises that Mary’s beauty, bravery and motherhood are both her greatest assets and her deepest flaws and have led to her downfall. She herself is more man than woman, she declares – her reign has made her thus. Ronan plays Mary as a variation on Joan of Arc – a sharp military mind with a conscience as transparent as her pallor and bright blue eyes (albeit Willimon writes her as a feckless Marie Antoinette a lot of the time), while Robbie’s Queen is the one beset with the miseries of the pox and a devious court craven by her power. They are both tremendous but this is really Ronan’s show, as the title suggests. Pearce, Lowden and Compston are particularly good in their treacherous sideshows. Nonetheless it’s wonderful to see two of the best young actresses in the world leading a film of such affecting performances.  The final contrasting shots of Mary’s meeting with destiny and Elizabeth’s costumes and cosmetics literally solidifying into a stony inhuman edifice linger in the mind.  Directed by Josie Rourke. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you

What a Carve Up! (1961)

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Aka No Place Like Homicide. One thing is certain – this is only the start. When wealthy recluse Gabriel Broughton dies of fright his heirs are summoned to his isolated country mansion Blackshaw Towers for a reading of the will. Then they are killed off, one by one and the nearest telephone is in the village … If he thinks I’m going to wait here and wind up in a deckchair on the lawn he’s got another thing coming. Adapted from Frank King’s novel The Ghoul by eminent British farceur Ray Cooney and Tony Hilton (they had co-written The Hand the previous year), this is an opportunity for Carry On regulars Kenneth Connor and Sid James to essay a pleasing Laurel and Hardy act (including a shared bed) as proofreader Ernest (nephew of the deceased) and his bookmaker roommate Syd, attending as his legal advisor. They are accompanied by pretty Linda (Shirley Eaton) a nurse, whom Ernest fancies; Ernest’s cousin Guy Broughton (Dennis Price) an ex-Army officer with an alcohol problem; Guy’s grasping sister Janet (Valerie Taylor); their father Doctor Edward (Michael Gwynn); their batty aunt Emily (Esma Cannon); solicitor Everett Sloane (!!) (Donald Pleasence); and the butler, Fisk (Michael Gough). It plays with all the notions of the haunted house and might remind some of Clue but is mainly a showcase for some good slapstick and mild innuendo which might still raise eyebrows. Genial fun performed by a very game ensemble with pop star Adam Faith turning up in the final sequence, which is explicitly used by author Jonathan Coe in his titular satirical homage to the film. Produced by Robert S. Baker and Monty Baker and directed by the brilliant documentary maker Pat Jackson. Syd, look! French Impressionists – Rembrandt!

Ludwig (1973)

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Ludwig. He loved women. He loved men. He lived as controversially as he ruled. But he did not care what the world thought. He was the world. Munich 1864. Young Ludwig (Helmut Berger) is crowned King of Bavaria and sets up financing his composer friend Richard Wagner (Trevor Howard) whom he hopes will be his intimate friend. When Wagner betrays him with married Cosima von Bülow (Silvana Mangano) he leaves Munich but Ludwig continues to support him. Ludwig’s cousin Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider) wants to set him up with her sister Sophie (Sonia Petrovna) but it’s Elisabeth that Ludwig wants. He retreats into the world of imagination, soundtracked to Wagner’s compositions, even when the 1866 Austro-Prussian war happens and his brother Otto (John Moulder-Brown) and cabinet cannot persuade him to take a side. Despite his burgeoning homosexuality he is persuaded to marry Sophie by his advisor Count Durckheim (Helmut Griem). Following the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 when Bavaria loses a deal of sovereignty to Prussia, Otto is hospitalised to treat his declining mental health. Ludwig is absorbed by his extravagant building projects including Neuschwanstein Castle and becomes involved with actor Josef Kainz (Folker Bohnet) and starts hosting orgies. He ignores Elisabeth. Word of his behaviour spreads to the Bavarian cabinet so that by 1886 it’s time to draft in the doctors … Mad, bad and dangerous, that was Ludwig’s reputation and Luchino Visconti’s lush, beautiful account doesn’t exactly clarify matters about his decline and mysterious demise even though it creates a fully fleshed world, dictated by the preferences of the protagonist himself. Partly the confusion has to do with what version you have the opportunity to watch. With five different cuts varying from two to four hours in length (I have watched two, the latest being the 226 minutes version as Visconti intended) this is something of a frustration in anyone’s language;  and, at the point in Visconti’s career where decoration was slowly supplanting dramatic tension, the joy in seeing Berger and Schneider exchanging sweet nothingness is replaced by a kind of exhaustion. Beauty can do that to a person. Breathtaking? It’s all that. And less, and less, if you see the shorter cuts with some of the gay stuff removed for censorship reasons. To the detriment too of dramatic logic. Yet this is quite a rounded vision of Germany’s intellectual and cultural aspects in the latter half of the nineteenth century, bristling through a nation-state’s growing political personality as a kind of warped belle époque happens. Visconti had a stroke after filming which led to all manner of issues for a production that happened when his long-cherished Proust project failed to come to fruition.  It’s a tribute to his protegé Berger really, who totally inhabits the role from boy to man with remarkable, emotive physicality in this inscription to a sorrowful life (the Italian dub is voiced by Giancarlo Giannini); while Schneider was returning to the role of Sissi (which had made her famous throughout Europe in a series of much-loved films) as a favour to the director.  Written by Visconti with Enrico Medioli and Suso Cecchi d’Amico, this was shot on the original locations, which adds immensely to the overwhelming spectacle, a great immersion into big characters and the way they made their lives matter.

They Were Sisters (1945)

They Were Sisters

 

 

 

She’s the kind that likes a man that wipes the floor with her. In 1919 three middle-class sisters meet the men they marry and the marriages develop into very different types of relationships. Twenty years later Lucy Moore (Phyllis Calvert) is happily married to her loving husband, the gentle William (Peter Murray-Hill) who has compassion and bases their marriage on understanding. She showers love and affection on her nieces and nephew, since she is unable to bear children of her own. Vera Sargeant (Anne Crawford), is also married to a very loving but fatally dull husband, Brian (Barry Livesey).  She never loved him and indulges her unhappiness with countless affairs and pays little heed to their young daughter. In 1939 both women become worried about their other sister, Charlotte Lee (Dulcie Gray), who cowers in fear of her manipulative and emotionally abusive husband, the sneering scowling Geoffrey (James Mason).  He is a monster and sadist who has picked at Charlotte, belittling her and turning her into a submissive drudge, bullying her to the point of alcoholism. He adores his older daughter Margaret (Pamela Mason) who works for him in his home office where he sells insurance but merely tolerates their younger son and daughter, at best. When Lucy attempts to get help for her, but fails because Geoffrey becomes aware of the failed appointment with a doctor when Vera puts her lover first instead of helping divert him from home, Gray commits the ultimate act of self-harm … Everything I’m used to has given me up. Quite an extraordinary entry in the Gainsborough ‘genre’ – stories of cruelty, the battle of the sexes and violently fantastical romances this is instead a contemporary story of domestic abuse and one lacking the allure of a Regency narrative with a seductive saturnine brute. Mason is just a commonplace bully keen to reduce his wife to nothing – which is what she becomes and her children and sisters are ultimately helpless to break the relationship with Geoffrey. Adapted by Katharine Strueby from Dorothy Whipple’s novel, the screenplay is by Roland Pertwee, who plays the coroner’s court judge. The ties that bind family are explored and the psychology of the bully brilliantly exposed in a drama that does not flinch from showing precisely how women are destroyed by men and lose their sense of self in incompatible unions:  this is a cautionary tale like few produced in British cinema. Weirdly, Charlotte and Geoffrey’s elder daughter is played by Mason’s wife Pamela (Kellino), the daughter of the film’s producer, Maurice Ostrer:  their physical likeness is uncanny. Mason was none too happy about being boxed in these kinds of roles and when he’s reduced to even being cruel to the young son about the dog he’s bought to bribe him and his sister you understand his point: this is a women’s picture, told for the benefit of those caught in terrible relationships. When Vera finally elects to leave her loveless domain and move abroad with the one man she has ever loved, it is at the expense of losing her daughter, who doesn’t even miss her. That the kind and childless Lucy winds up looking after both sister’s children is a dramatic irony that clearly struck people in the aftermath of World War 2.  Gray is wonderful as the woman who simply cannot take it any more while Calvert and Murray-Hill make for an utterly believable couple. This magnificently soapy modern Gothic story of gaslighting was number 4 at the box office on its release. Directed by Arthur Crabtree and produced by Michael Balcon. There are a million families like us