Dark Waters (1944)

“I’m afraid all sentimental considerations must be put aside.”

During WWII, young, beautiful Leslie Calvin (Merle Oberon) is traveling to America with her parents by ship when the vessel is struck and sunk by a submarine torpedo. Leslie is one of a handful of people to survive, and when the film begins she comes to consciousness in hospital aware that both of her parents are dead. She’s encouraged to write to her only surviving relatives who live in New York–an aunt and uncle she’s never met. But it seems that they’ve moved to a plantation in Louisiana, and in spite of her fragile mental state, Leslie travels to the south to join them there.

It’s obvious to the viewer, long before Leslie catches on, that there’s something peculiar afoot. Leslie arrives at the plantation thanks to the kindness of Dr. George Grover (Franchot Tone) who warns Aunt Emily (Fay Bainter) and Uncle Norbert (John Qualen) to avoid any discussion of the tragic events that brought Leslie to them. But sinister houseguest Mr. Sidney (Thomas Mitchell) and the unpleasant overseer Cleeve (Elisha Cook Jr.) seem to bring up the subject at every given opportunity. Add a few flickering lights, and voices that call Leslie to the treacheries of an uncharted swamp, and after a day or two, Leslie starts to think she’s going stark raving mad.

Setting any film in a swamp gives the plot a certain atmosphere, and that’s a good thing in the case of Dark Waters (directed by Andre De Toth) because the film needs it. Leslie isn’t a particularly satisfying heroine, and for most of the film she looks like a deer caught in the headlights. Two gooey scenes meant to depict the bucolic splendor of life in the Deep South further sabotage the film’s slight dramatic tension. One scene gives us an idealized view of a vast family, and another scene is a shindig for the locals. Too light on suspense to elicit more than mild interest from me, the film manages to lose its limpness towards the end and concludes with a moderately interesting finale.

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