So my guess is that this is the sequence of events that lead to this film existing.
- Fritz Lang, the film pioneer who gave us such works as Metropolis and M, was an enormous inspiration to later filmmakers, including Alfred Hitchcock among them. And Lang knew it.
- The Second World War cut into Lang’s work a little, giving these younger filmmakers a chance to claim the spotlight, and Hitchcock in particular started to overtake Lang, with works like Rebecca and Spellbound.
- When the war ended, Lang finally got a chance to catch up – and chose to re-assert himself at the same time, by copying several of Hitchcock’s recent films all in one fell swoop.
At least that’s what this looks like is going on. And it also looks…pretty darn nuts.
Plotwise it looks nuts, anyway. Joan Bennett plays Celia Lamphere, the new bride to a brooding architect named Mark (Michael Redgrave) whom she meets while on a vacation in Mexico. They marry after only a week, and after a starry-eyed honeymoon in a Mexican Villa they head back to the the Lamphere manse in upstate New York. There, Celia discovers a few things that Mark had forgotten to tell her – like, the fact that he was previously married, and had a teenage son. Or that his older sister lives with them. And so does a secretary.
Celia also learns about one of Mark’s hobbies; during their honeymoon he told her he “collected rooms” where “felicitous things happened”. No doubt Celia thought, as I did, that Mark either saved pictures of them, or made little scale models in his workroom. But no – during a baroquely gothic sequence, Mark gives Celia and a bunch of house guests a tour of the huge hall in his basement where he’s recreated the actual rooms, in meticulous detail. Even more disturbingly – the rooms he’s created were all murder scenes. And there’s one room that Mark forbids anyone to enter – especially Celia. Celia’s already on edge after a conversation with various conversations with the secretary Mrs. Robie, who wears a scarf obscuring the left half of her face at all times and who seems weirdly obsessed with Mark, and with Mark’s son David, who’s convinced that Mark killed his mother…
“Baroquely Gothic” seems a good descriptor for the film overall, more so than “noir”. So many details about this film – the plot, the sets, the costumes – seem heightened and over-the-top in a way designed to creep you out. Celia always seems to be poking around through dark rooms and secret doors, half the scenes at the Lamphere mansion show the grounds wreathed in fog, characters’ back stories involve parental cruelty and natural disasters and psychological trauma.
Visually, however, it all looks amazing. Over the top batcrap, but amazing – Lang still has the same eye for visuals he always did. I was especially struck at a shot during Celia and Mark’s wedding, when she’s temporarily second-guessing her choice – “I’m marrying a stranger!” she thinks to herself, in a voiceover. And at that moment, Mark takes one step away from the altar towards her – and that step puts Barrymore right into a shadow, hiding his face from us. All those scenes of Celia exploring the mansion are similarly gorgeous. Towards the end there’s a scene where Celia is trying to make an escape from the mansion, running through the fog-wreathed grounds – and pauses for a moment to see if she’s being followed. And when ever-so-slowly a figure emerged from the fog and started towards her, I admit I shivered.
Most critics seem to be as equally torn on this film as I am – half seem to cleave to the gorgeous cinematography, insisting it carries things, while the other half seem to have been turned off by the outlandishness of the plot. I’m leaning towards the latter; but have been wondering what it would be like if it were given more of a camp remake.