Thursday, November 10, 2011

Love With a Stranger (Trafalgar/United Artists, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When Charles and I got home, however, we watched a movie that was even more surprisingly good, since we hadn’t had much of an expectation for it: it was just another download of the film Love From a Stranger, the 1937 version of a story called “Philomel Cottage” by Agatha Christie (a real surprise since it’s a psychological thriller rather than a whodunit, and is one of the few times in her writing career that Christie actually gave a damn about character development and real emotion instead of just creating stick-figure people and having them enact a murder mystery) and the play Frank Vosper adapted from it, though in the U.S. it was released as A Night of Terror (which rather gives the ending away!).

It was produced by a British company called Trafalgar, though several Americans were involved: super-agent Harry Edgington (who had represented both John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in the silent era and anticipated Lew Wasserman and Charles Feldman in using his stable of stars to move from agentry to production) was the producer, Rowland V. Lee was the director, Frances Marion the screenwriter and Ann Harding starred as Carol Howard, a woman in London with a boring job (at a foundation of some sort); a boring fiancé, Ronald Bruce (Bruce Seton); a small flat and only two amusements: buying lottery tickets and hanging out with her roommate, Kate Meadows (Binnie Hale), whom she genuinely likes even though a third woman, Kate’s crotchety Aunt Lou (Jean Cadell) is part of the deal. Things change for her when one of her lottery tickets actually wins her a prize of several thousand pounds, and when she advertises a sublet on her flat the ad attracts a fascinating young man named Gerald Lovell (Basil Rathbone, a South African-born British-trained actor but one who already had a following among U.S. film audiences), who claims to be a World War I veteran and a South American oil tycoon and says he wants to rent her little flat because he used to live in the neighborhood before he struck it rich and wants to relive those days. Instead of moving in, though, he follows Carol onto the ship that’s taking her to Paris (it was a French lottery so she has to go there to claim the prize) and eventually woos her and marries her.

They live high off the hog and eventually, once they return to the U.K., Gerald announces that she’s buying them a house in Kent but he needs money to complete the deal — and Carol, totally trusting her husband, signs two large legal documents that give him control over her entire fortune. Once they move there, Carol’s life becomes slowly discombobulated as she sees Gerald go into irrational rages and tell both her and the servants, gardener Hobson (Donald Calthrop) and his daughter, maid Emmy (Joan Hickson, who according to returned to Christie’s work decades later as Miss Marple on a BBC-TV series), that under no circumstances are they to go into the cellar because he has his darkroom there (he’s an amateur photographer) and he also does scientific experiments (he’s claimed to make his living as a chemical engineer). It’s not that clear what he really does in the cellar, but eventually it turns out that both he and the local doctor, Gribble (Bryan Powley), own a book about famous murderers — only Gerald’s copy is missing the photo of one of the most famous ones of all, Fleming, who made it his habit of meeting and wooing women who’d suddenly come into money, marrying them, getting them to sign their fortunes over to him and then killing them.

Dr. Gribble brings over his copy of the book, but before Carol can see it Gerald rips out the photo of Fleming from that copy, too, and needless to say it turns out that Gerald is Fleming and Carol is his next would-be victim — though the other characters learn what’s going on in time that Carol’s life is saved, Fleming is arrested and Carol ends up back in London with her boring job and her boring boyfriend. Love With a Stranger wasn’t exactly fresh drama then any more than it is now, and Rathbone had played a similar part two years earlier in the 1935 MGM film Kind Lady (with Aline MacMahon as his “mark”), only in that case he wasn’t romancing her (just taking advantage of her kind heart and interest in helping out the downtrodden) and he was a suave but sane swindler whose interest in Ms. MacMahon was in the 10 valuable paintings she had on the walls of her home. In Love With a Stranger Rathbone’s character is certifiably crazy, and his descent from Continental charmer to out-and-out madman is a chilling and vividly thought-out piece of acting. But what’s most interesting about Love With a Stranger is not the movies that inspired it but the ones with similar plotlines that came later, including Gaslight and Notorious. 

One advantage of those later films was that the damsel in distress was played by Ingrid Bergman, a far more subtle and sensitive actress than Ann Harding, who usually walked through her parts so impassively she sometimes comes across as an unfunny Buster Keaton in drag. In this movie at least Rowland V. Lee gets her to smile a couple of times in the opening reel, and as if to make up for her relative impassivity in the rest of the movie she goes into a spasm of flaring, scenery-chewing overacting in the scene in which she finally has to deal with the revelation that her husband is a serial killer. But despite Harding’s limitations, Love With a Stranger is a fine film, and it benefits from a quite advanced musical score by the young Benjamin Britten — much more dissonant than the norm for an American film at the time, though it suffers from the relative reticence of British studios in using music (the scored scenes are mostly dialogue-less montages and there’s surprisingly little underscoring of dialogue for 1937); with someone as skilled as Britten (even that early) composing the score, we’d certainly want to hear more of it!