Tag Archives: gothic

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

It’s been years since I first saw the 1952 film, My Cousin Rachel, and a rereading on the book written by Daphne du Maurier sent me on a hunt for a copy. Du Maurier is probably best remembered for Rebecca, and while I think the film adaptation of du Maurier’s novel Rebecca is excellent and much glossier, it seems strange that the film should hold such a premier position in film history (there’s even a Criterion version) while its poor relation My Cousin Rachel– has almost disappeared from view. Rebecca starred Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and George Sanders and was directed by Hitchcock. The film won Best Picture and Best Cinematography at the 1941 Academy awards. My Cousin Rachel, directed by Henry Koster, racked up a number of Academy Award nominations in 1953 but no wins. One of the Oscar nominations went to Richard Burton for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, but he lost to Anthony Quinn for his role in Viva Zapata (Burton won a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year). My Cousin Rachel was Richard Burton’s first American film, and the film’s salacious trailer calls him a “newcomer.” Burton is young here and doesn’t yet have the screen presence to dominate–but then again perhaps it’s because the character he plays, Philip Ashley, is a very confused young man whose judgement is clouded by sexual desire.

My Cousin Rachel is set on Daphne du Maurier’s beloved Cornwall coast, and most of the action takes place there with just a short sidetrip to Florence. The story opens (as does the book) with Ambrose Ashley (John Sutton) taking his small orphaned cousin and ward, Philip to see the corpse of a hanged man swinging in the wind. Ambrose admonishes Philip that the dead man’s fate is the result of out-of-control passion–a dire and prophetic warning as it turns out.

Fast forward to Ambrose now a middle-aged man and Philip (Richard Burton) in his twenties. Ambrose’s health necessitates a winter abroad, and the two men part–somewhat reluctantly. Ambrose’s winter abroad extends into the spring and the summer along with the news that he’s made the acquaintance of a distant cousin–a widow named Rachel Sangalleti. This is shortly followed by the astonishing news that Ashley, a confirmed bachelor, has married the widow. Some months later, Philip begins to receive strange incoherent letters from his cousin which indicate not only that he is seriously ill but also that he suspects Rachel of poisoning him. 

Alarmed, Philip rushes off to Florence, but he’s too late. Ambrose is dead, and with a new will unsigned, all of Ambrose’s property falls to Philip….

Then some time later, Rachel arrives in Cornwall at Philip’s estate ostensibly for a short visit. When she first arrives, Philip is primed to accuse her of murder, but he’s immediately stunned by her sweet pliant nature and he’s soon won over by Rachel’s persistent, gentle charm.

The premise of both the film and the book is whether or not Rachel killed Ambrose. There are certainly clues that argue both points–although I think that ultimately the book was far more ambiguous. This is due, no doubt, to du Maurier’s skill as a writer, but perhaps the visual aspects of the film and some of the facial expressions caught by the camera add a dimension that is, of course, absent from the book. Gothic film frequently explores the vulnerability of women and the predatory nature of men, and this film cleverly plays with that idea, so as the drama unfolds, we see both Rachel and Philip as predator and victim depending on our view of the events.  Olivia de Havilland is perfect as Rachel–at times she appears youthful and innocent, but at other times a flicker of an expression passes across her features, and we wonder–as Philip does–just what she is capable of. Meanwhile neighbour and now guardian Nicholas Kendall (Ronald Squire ) and his daughter Louise (Audrey Dalton) are reluctant onlookers and have no doubt that Rachel’s conduct is questionable at best.

There’s no small amount of sexual manipulation afoot, but all those involved have some degree of self-interest, so when Kendall tries to warn Philip about Rachel, is he perhaps unhappy to see his daughter, Louise (Audrey Dalton) cast aside for Rachel? 

Camera shots make great use of shadow to enhance the drama and unexpressed fear of the characters, and some of the action set against the back drop of the wild Cornish coast emphasizes the depths of hidden, explosive and destructive passion. One of ideas implicit in the film is that Rachel’s somewhat unconventional behaviour (she continually invites Philip into her boudoir) is due to her ‘Italian ways,’ and indeed her open and easy affectionate manner with Philip sets his head spinning. Underneath this sexual tension, however, is the idea that Philip’s repression, once unleashed, will lead to destruction. Anyway, I know where I stand on the subject of Rachel’s innocence or guilt, and for those interested in the book or Gothic drama, the film really is a marvellous little gem and well-worth catching.

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A Hazard of Hearts (1987)

 “You want more, more, MORE!”

A Hazard of Hearts is a British made-for-television costume drama set in Regency times starring a very young Helena Bonham Carter as the heroine, Serena Staverley. When the film begins, Selena’s compulsive gambler father Lord Staverley (Christopher Plummer) loses his fortune, his house and his daughter in a London gaming house. He bets everything on the roll of dice to wicked Lord Wrotham (James Fox), a dastardly villain who’s had his beady, lascivious eye on Serena for some time. Wrotham, however, then gambles with the mysterious Lord Vulcan–who on the surface doesn’t seem much better than Wrotham, but he’s the film’s hero.

heartsThe film is basically a gothic romance with duels, smugglers, secret passageways and many other thrills and chills of the genre to spice the plot. The film is based on the Barbara Cartland novel. If you are familiar with Cartland’s novels, then you will know what to expect in this film version. Cartland was an extremely prolific romance novelist, writing and publishing almost 700 novels during her lifetime (and many more published posthumously). Cartland’s novels were often criticized, but she had a winning formula for success and a legion of loyal fans.

So here we have the film version–a spunky heroine, an emotionally distant hero, and a gothic deep dark mystery. A Hazard of Hearts showcases a very young Helena Bonham Carter in a somewhat mousey role. She faints several times in the film when the action gets too much, and it’s seasoned actress Diana Rigg as the wicked Lady Vulcan who steals the film here with the very best role and some of the best lines. This is fairly cheesy, silly stuff, but for the hardcore romantics, Cartland as always, delivers for her fans. From director John Hough.

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Oriana (1985)

Venezuelan Gothic

Maria (Daniela Silverio), a young French woman, inherits a hacienda in Venezuela from her Aunt Oriana (Doris Wells). Maria and her husband travel to the hacienda with the idea of selling it and returning to France. When they arrive, the remote hacienda is in a terrible state of repair. Apparently, Oriana wouldn’t allow the house to be cleaned, and she insisted that she even wanted the dust to remain untouched until her niece arrived to claim her inheritance.

The well-dressed French couple enters the hacienda, and they enter another world. As Maria tries to complete an inventory prior to the sale, memories overwhelm her. She spent one summer with her aunt in her peculiar household in Venezuela, and the film goes back and forth in time sifting through Maria’s memories. From the beginning of the film, there’s clearly a mystery afoot, and Maria’s memories gradually reveal the secret of the hacienda for the viewer.

Oriana unfolds with a strong strain of Gothicism. The lush Venezuelan jungle surrounds the hacienda, but inside the house all life and joy seems extinguished. There’s a surly uppity servant, rooms not to be entered, precious objects that are not to be touched, and an ugly secret to be uncovered.

Unfortunately, the film is rather dull, and the characters too uninteresting to arouse little more than mild curiosity about Oriana’s story. The film jumps back and forth in time with the adult Maria’s return to the hacienda, and the adolescent Maria visiting the hacienda for the first time. There seems to be little gained from showing the adult Maria wandering around a filthy hacienda pouring over various objects. Each object sparks a trip down memory lane, and then we get a little bit more of the story of Oriana. This sort of scene works once, but then after that it’s redundant. In spite of the film’s exotic location, Oriana failed to arouse enough interest and suspense to keep me committed to the plot.

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House by the River (1950)

 “Sometimes cheap perfume can be very exciting.”

House By the River is a lesser-known title from master director Fritz Lang. It’s touted as film noir, and that will probably help sell copies, but it’s more accurate to describe this wonderful film as a Gothic psychological drama.

The story is set in the late 1800s and concerns unsuccessful writer Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) who’s married to Marjorie (Jane Wyatt). After the return of yet another rejected manuscript, Stephen attacks and murders his attractive blonde maid, Emily (Dorothy Patrick). As he struggles to dispose of the body, his brother John (Lee Bowman) arrives. John, a lonely taciturn bachelor, loves and admires Marjorie, and Stephen exploits this knowledge to coerce John into helping him cover up his crime. Stephen cunningly realizes that John is extremely vulnerable, and instead of being indebted to John, Stephen gradually reverses the power relationship.

The plot maximizes the psychological elements at play while examining the aftereffects of the maid’s disappearance. In a small town, the maid’s attractiveness combined with her social standing and mysterious disappearance result in a web of gossip. The main characters all fit their roles well, but Louis Hayward steals the film. Stephen is very social and popular, and he can charm a room full of fawning women. But there’s an insane, crafty side to his character. Stephen’s expressions alter in the twinkling of an eye from benign conviviality to reflect his evil, dastardly plans.

House By the River is proof yet again of Fritz Lang’s talent as a director. One magnificent scene shows water draining from the bath, and somehow this simple event assumes fantastic, ominous proportions. Lang also includes some masterful scenes of Stephen alone on the river. The river that flows outside of Stephen’s home seems to possess a willful life of its own, and Stephen goes to battle with the river for its stubborn refusal to surrender to his plans–Marvelous stuff and Fritz Lang fans won’t be disappointed.

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Beast with Five Fingers (1946)

 “In my mind there is no doubt the hand is walking around.”

In a plot that would make Edgar Allan Poe proud, the gothic thriller The Beast With Five Fingers explores the idea of revenge from beyond the grave. The reclusive and wealthy Francis Ingram (Victor Francen) lives in his villa in Italy surrounded by his nurse and caretaker, Julie (Andrea King), hanger on-composer Bruce Conrad (Robert Alda) and librarian Hilary Cummins (Peter Lorre) who’s obsessed with the occult and has free use of Ingram’s extensive library for his research. A stroke has left Ingram wheelchair bound and with one arm paralyzed. Ingram, who is imperious, demanding and controlling has fallen in love with Julie, and she wants to leave as she finds the situation with Ingram has become too suffocating.

When Ingram is killed in an accident, his relatives–Raymond and Donald Arlington (Charles Dingle & John Alvin) hurry over from England to claim the estate. At the reading of the will, everyone is surprised to learn that Julie is the sole heir. A squabble breaks out between Julie and the Arlingtons who promptly threaten to challenge the will. Ingram’s wily lawyer offers to represent the relatives in what promises to be a lucrative case, but then one night he’s strangled.

A trail of clues leads to the crypt that houses Ingram’s body, and when his coffin is opened, the police inspector discovers that Ingram’s hand has been removed….The Beast With Five Fingers is a gothic film with heavy psychological overtones that play with several plot layers–is Ingram’s hand really on the loose, murdering those who attempt to thwart his will, or is this a trick designed to cover another’s murderous intent? That’s for the viewer to decide. Yes, the film is cheesy, semi-hysterical and silly, but it’s still rather well done, and it’s one of those films that stick to your brain long after the credits roll. From director Robert Florey.

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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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