Sunday, 12 August 2018
My watching of old films with a supernatural theme continues with this 1944 Paramount production. Set in Cornwall (though filmed in San Francisco and Phoenix, Arizona) it is based on Dorothy McCardle's novel Uneasy Freehold. It is one of the earliest films to offer a 'straight' ghost story, as opposed to fake hauntings or comedies of the Abbot and Costello type. As such it set a very high standard - one that many modern efforts singularly fail to aspire to. It's also notable as the feature debut of director Lewis Allen.
The story is set in 1937. Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey star as brother and sister Rick and Pam Fitzgerald. On holiday in Cornwall they stumble upon Windward, an empty house near a cliff-top. Pam persuades Rick to buy the house so that he can work as a composer free from London's distractions. They approach the owner, Commodore Beech. Beech's granddaughter Stella (newcomer Gail Russell) is upset to find strangers interested in Windward and tries to put them off. Despite this they buy the house and Rick goes back to London to arrange the move while Pam remains behind to set things in order. An ominous foreshadowing of what is to come occurs when a bunch of flowers wither in the attic studio of Windward, but the siblings fail to notice.
When Rick returns a few weeks later he finds Windward looking fine, but the family dog has run away. It emerges that the house has a tragic past. Stella's parents, an artist called Meredith and his wife Mary, lived there with Carmel, a Spanish gypsy model and Meredith's mistress. When Stella was three Carmel and Mary fought at the cliff edge and Mary was killed in a fall. Carmel died shortly after from pneumonia. Stella, however, is convinced that her mother's ghost haunts Windward, and evidence soon emerges that supports her belief. A sobbing woman is heard, candles grow dim, a chilling sense of misery dwells in the attic studio.
Rick and Pam attempt to tackle the haunting with the help of Doctor Scott (Alan Napier, later famed as Alfred in Batman). Rick believes the problem is largely psychological. However, a seance with Stella only underlines the reality of the haunting. Meanwhile Commodore Beech (Donald Crisp) has recruited a former nurse of Mary Meredith, the formidable Miss Holloway (wonderfully played by Cornelia Otis Skinner). The latter runs what amounts to a private mental home, believes in all things psychic, and dresses like a druid. It also seems clear that she had a more than friendly interest in the late Mary Meredith. Her attitude to Stella, who becomes her 'patient', is oddly hostile.
Revelations abound as the movie accelerates from a fairly leisurely start to a climax that resembles a Christie//Sayers type whodunnit with ghosts. Actual manifestations of the supernatural are sparing but effective, with Mary appearing as a swirly, ectoplasmic form. The truth about the tragic events at Windward becomes clear via a number of well-handled devices, notably the ghostly breeze blowing
open the notebook of Dr Scott's predecessor.
This is a satisfying film on many levels. The direction is assured and lengthy exposition made bearable by well-framed shots of lavish sets. The overall feel is of a modern Gothic mystery with the touches of humour and weirdness that informed the best Victorian 'shockers'. The accents are all over the place, as usual when Hollywood goes British, but this does not detract from the performances. Ray Milland conveys civilized assurance while Gail Russell's vulnerable beauty is hard to resist.
If you haven't seen this one, give it a go. It is not as frightening as later ghost movies, but it paved the way for The Innocents, The Haunting, and many others. Considered as a piece of intelligent entertainment it is near flawless.