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Saturday, October 26, 2013

HubrisWeen Day 21: The Uninvited (1944)

Screenplay by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos, based on the novel Uneasy Freehold by Dorothy Macardle
Directed by Lewis Allen

Ray Milland:  Roderick Fitzgerald
Ruth Hussey:  Pamela Fitzgerald
Gail Russell:  Stella Meredith
Donald Crisp:  Commander Beech

This one's a weird mix of genres--a romance, a mystery, a ghost story and a comedy by turns. And the love theme became a hit for Frank Sinatra, which probably was not an outcome that a lot of the people making it were likely to guess. The score starts with lush strings, which I'm not used to from my Universal horror movies (this was my first clue that it was a prestige picture; The Creature from the Black Lagoon and everything off the two Universal sci-fi / monster box sets have scores that provided work for every brass musician in California). And it just got a Criterion release this month, so it looks like the prestige is still there 70 years after the movie was released in to theaters.

The story starts with an act of happenstance--a brother and sister stumble across an abandoned seaside house on the western coast of England when their dog chases a squirrel into it through an open bottom-story window. While trying to track down their dog, the Fitzgerald siblings are impressed with the grandeur of the house and go from looking for their pet to checking out the place (including one room that is locked even though nobody's living in the house and haven't for years). Pamela figures that if they pool their life savings they might just be able to afford the house if they can find the owner and talk them into selling.

They wind up at the home of Commander Beech, who owns the Windward House, as the structure is called. They're greeted at the door by his granddaughter Stella, though, who tries to brush them off and throw them out when the Commander returns from a walk and talks to the pair. He's willing to sell and Stella isn't; since he's the one in charge of the house he accepts their offer of 1200 pounds as a way to provide Stella a nest egg after he's gone. During the negotiations Beech explicitly states that no house is haunted, but that the tenants half a decade ago complained of "disturbances". He accepts the Fitzgeralds' offer and they move in to the house immediately.

Roderick, a composer and music critic, plans to turn the locked room into an office so he can work on his music uninterrupted. Pamela doesn't care for the room at all; it's drafty, damp and off-putting even on a warm and sunny day. Fresh flowers in the room wither and age a matter of months in a few seconds; neither one notices this because they're too busy reassuring each other that there's no such thing as a haunted house and they aren't afraid of anything. Their dog (and later, their housekeeper's cat) won't ever walk up the stairs to go to the second floor, though, and that's rather unusual.

A few nights later Roderick is awakened by the sound of a woman sobbing. He lights a candle and goes looking for whoever it is and finds nothing. His sister joins him; now the only two people living in the house are both talking to each other while the unearthly crying echoes through the house. It turns out that Pamela's heard it before and gone looking for its source, but never found anything. She says it always vanishes with the dawn. When the daylight comes, Roderick blames "a loose wire" for the noises and goes to bed, telling himself that he's not worried about anything and hiding under the covers at the slightest noise.

Roderick goes to talk to Commander Beech about the disturbance, who says that his grandmother built the house and there were no apparitions or ghostly voices in her day (or in his when he lived there). He blames the echoes from an underground cave for the noises, and states that Stella is not strong enough to visit the new arrivals, or to have them become her friends. This bombshell gets dropped just as Stella walks into the study to overhear it; she's scandalized and resolves to make the Fitzgerald siblings into her friends nonetheless. During this exchange Roderick realizes that the man who sold him the house really does think it's haunted, and that the spirit wants to hurt Stella (with everyone else terrified by its manifestations being irrelevant to the ghost's wishes).

Stella joins the Fitzgeralds as their first dinner guest in the new place and says she hasn't been inside Windward House since she was three; her memories of the place are mostly sensory impressions and emotions rather than concrete recollections. While in the studio she mentions her father used her mother as a model for his painting, but had a second model that nobody in the village likes to talk about (but they don't talk about her in a way that screams "scandal", with all of them referring to her as a Spanish gypsy as only a small-town English person can). Roderick improvises a melody that he calls "Stella by Starlight" while in the studio.

Stella goes into some kind of trance while at Windward House, walking towards the cliffs where Roderick pulls her back from the edge with a second or two to spare. Back at the house, a terrified scream from the housekeeper brings everyone back inside; she says she saw a mist, or a woman, up at the studio door just a moment ago. She refuses to stay in the house and while consoling her Roderick and Pamela lose track of Stella. They find her unconscious on the studio floor. The village doctor is summoned, who turns out to have adopted the Fitzgeralds' dog when it ran away from Windward House.

Stella wants to come back to the house and contact the ghost (who she thinks is Mary Meredith, her mother, based on the scent of Mimosa perfume that accompanies the hauntings). The doctor and Fitzgeralds all think that's a terrible idea. Pamela suggests that Stella's arrival at the house might have given her departed mother a measure of peace and comfort, and that the disturbances might be over. No such luck--the studio is still clammy and cold and ghostly wailing start up again.

Roderick's had it with Windward House and wants to move back to London (with Stella, though; the two have fallen in love). She doesn't want to go with him--she wants to stay near the spirit of a mother she can't fully remember.

Pamela decides that a séance is just the thing--by communicating with the earthbound spirit they'll be able to put it to rest, cleanse the house and help Stella all at the same time. Roderick and the doctor plan to rig the séance and give messages from beyond that are exactly what they think Stella needs to hear in order to stay away from Windward House and patch up her mental state.

That goes on to not happen at all; even with the two men trying to influence the direction the wine glass they're using as a planchette the messages say that Stella's mother is bound to the house and trying to guard her from danger before the wine glass throws itself into the fireplace. Stella winds up possessed by something that speaks Spanish; none of the other people in the circle understand what she's saying but it's not good news. A ghostly vapor appears and forms into the indistinct shape of a woman right before Commander Beech shows up. He's furious to the point where he wants to return the full purchase price of the house to the Fitzgeralds in exchange for their leaving the village and never coming back. Roderick counters with a statement that he's going nowhere and will cleanse the house in order to save Stella from the spirit attacks.

Pamela, Roderick and the doctor all start researching what went on twenty years ago with Stella's parents and Carmel, the gypsy that Mr. Meredith was having his affair with. Old diary entries and village gossip as well as an interview with Miss Holloway, a nurse who cared for Stella as a baby, give them several fragments of the full story--the Merediths went to Paris with Carmel and returned without her and with a baby. Carmel returned to Windward House months later, carried an infant Stella to the cliffs to throw her into the sea, fought with Mary Meredith at the cliffs' edge and knocked her into the ocean to her death. She died a week later of pneumonia with Nurse Holloway fighting to keep her alive the whole time.

The investigators think that Miss Holloway wasn't telling them the full truth; another diary entry from the old village doctor accuses Holloway of leaving a window open in the winter to hasten Carmel's death from pneumonia (the new doctor is able to read between the lines of what the old one has written; it helps to have someone who knows the dirty tricks of the trade on the team). Stella winds up at Miss Holloway's convalescent home for emotionally unstable women and Holloway sends her back to Windward House just as the Fitzgeralds and the doctor show up to confront her again; they have to race the train back to the village to rescue Stella from the angry spirit. It turns out that she's right in that her mother is there in spirit, but all the manifestations were from two spirits bound to the house--one loves her daughter and wants to protect her. The other is willing to kill the reminder of a broken marriage out of jealous rage. And when the benevolent one is cleansed from the house, finally at peace, the other one still remains to wreak mischief on the world of the living...

I'm really worried about the next movie in the HubrisWeen marathon; since the N title in this marathon everything's been high quality and this movie is no exception. But I've got Jim Wynorski making a pre-Marvel comic adaptation on deck. Still, I'd rather praise today's movie than worry about the next one (I can abandon all hope just as easily tomorrow as today).

It's amazing what you can get when everyone in front of the camera is a talented actor engaging with the material and the script teases out enough reveals to keep the audience engaged with the narrative. The cinematography is gorgeous, as is Windward House.

The characters--even the ghostly ones--have understandable motivations and plausible reasons for acting like they do. Ray Milland, as the male lead, is charming and intelligent and not afraid to poke a few holes in his character's bravado and look silly (his fit of seasickness in his getting-to-know-Stella boat trip shows him as a person willing to claim capabilities he doesn't have--to his peril--in the real world before he decides he's brave and smart enough to take on a supernatural mystery). Commander Beech is a brusque and controlling person who knows a hell of a lot more than he's telling about Stella's past and the hauntings at Windward House, but he's also acting in his granddaughter's best interests. It really is horribly dangerous for her to go within the ghosts' sphere of influence. The doctor and Roderick think they can influence the séance because they don't believe in possession and divination, but they wind up being unable to put the fix in like they thought they could. Other than the Disney-style orchestral score underlining the cuteness of Bobby the terrier, it's hard to name any missteps in the movie.

Other than the ragingly weird character of Miss Holloway, I'm afraid. I'm not sure how much of the subtext was there in 1944, but she's a woman who runs an all-woman asylum and who has a gigantic portrait of Mary Meredith in her study; later revelations put her down as a medical murderer who killed Carmel for her part in Mary's death. Perhaps the big portrait and her backstory were meant to be a riff on Laura, a film noir from the same year where a detective falls in love with the woman whose death he's investigating. But it's impossible for me, in 2013, to not view her character as a black widow caricature of a lesbian, scheming and plotting to kill an innocent woman for having been born to the wrong mother and still in love with the cuckolded wife from the Meredith's marriage. That sour note aside, the movie is a lively and engaging view with more than plenty to recommend it. And for queer-theory film scholars, even the evil characters defined by their nonstandard sexuality are a source for study and criticism, so there's that aspect (for what it's worth). Interesting that a movie about the sins of the past infecting the present can have such a retrograde portrayal, showing that very aspect to audiences seven decades after the film was made.

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