Thursday, July 12, 2012

Madeleine (Cineguild/Rank Organisation, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles wanted to watch a movie, but he recognized the first one I picked — a quirky 1964 thriller called Signpost to Murder from MGM’s British branch — as one we’d seen already (and I’ve already posted my notes on it from when we did so, in September 2005), so we went looking for something else to watch on the same disc and found it in Madeleine, a much better film with “A”-list talent, also a British production but based on a true-crime story from Glasgow in 1857 in which Madeleine Smith (Ann Todd), the daughter of rich James Smith (Leslie Banks), was accused of poisoning her one-time lover, penniless French émigré Émile L’Angellier (Ivan Desny), and put on trial for murder and attempted murder (the latter charge for an alleged previous attempt on her part to poison him that sickened but didn’t kill him). The script was by Stanley Haynes (who also produced) and Nicholas Phipps, and the director was the young David Lean, who made this movie in 1950, before he’d done the big-budget spectaculars (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago) on which his current reputation rests but at a time when he already had Brief Encounter and Great Expectations under his belt — and both those films are reflected in this one, Brief Encounter in the palpable sense of sexual frustration between the leads and Great Expectations in the Gothic, almost noir atmosphere Lean and cinematographer Guy Green created for another 19th century story about dark deeds and family dysfunction. Actually, though, the film this one reminded me most of is The Heiress, made in the U.S. by William Wyler the previous year and, at least for its first hour, quite similarly plotted: a young woman of means lives under the thumb of her overbearing, tyrannical father; by accident she meets a man with no money and starts an affair with him, fearful that her father will find out; eventually she offers to marry him but insists that by doing so she’ll be turning her back on her father and her family’s fortune, and when he bails on the offer she realizes he was only interested in the family’s money, not her, and rejects him.

Though one of the plot wrinkles in The Heiress was that the young woman was supposedly unattractive (though she was played by Olivia de Havilland and the only thing wrong with her looks was she was about a decade too old for the part in the opening scenes; she looked more credible in the later reels as the character aged) and Ann Todd (who had played Madeleine Smith before on the British stage and who had just married David Lean when this film was made; she described it as his wedding present to her, though they divorced eight years later and, according to Robert Osborne, later she said that marriage was “the worst mistake of my life”) as Madeleine seems quite good-looking and even has a young dad-approved suitor, William Minnoch (Norman Wooland), paying court to her (and indeed Norman Wooland and Ivan Desny look enough alike that one has to look for Émile’s thin moustache and long, thin sideburns to tell them apart: neither of them is a match for the young Montgomery Clift in the charisma department!), the film pretty much follows the plot line of The Heiress until about midway through. After having put him off before Madeleine suddenly accepts Minnoch’s proposal — this following a long sequence in which Madeleine and Émile clearly had sex together, though with both the British Board of Film Censors and the U.S. Production Code Administration to deal with, Lean, Haynes and Phipps have to be maddeningly ambiguous in getting the point across (in fact I was under the impression that the reason Madeleine suddenly changed her mind about marrying Minnoch was that she had got pregnant by Émile and she needed to marry someone quickly so no one would realize she’d had premarital sex — though there’s no reference in the rest of the film, either visually or in dialogue, to Madeleine being pregnant) — and Émile reappears in her life after she’s rejected him, threatening to give her love letters to him to her father, which is supposedly her motive for killing him.

Madeleine is a fascinating movie, utterly gripping — one reviewer thought it would have been better with Alfred Hitchcock directing (Todd had made a film with Hitchcock three years earlier, but it wasn’t one of his stronger ones: The Paradine Case, in which she played the long-suffering wife of Gregory Peck’s attorney character), but a Hitchcock-directed Madeleine would have been more of a thriller and less of a character study. Whatever Todd’s feelings towards Lean in later years, in the first flush of their marriage he directed her brilliantly, getting a quiet performance out of her that showed her emotional and physical frustration under a placid exterior; and Leslie Banks was equally good as the father (he was even made up similarly to Ralph Richardson in The Heiress; both men’s full beards practically became characters in their own right!), communicating self-righteous priggery but striking the same delicate balance as the father in Verdi’s opera La Traviata: a man who messes up the lives of his kids but thinks he’s only doing his best to protect them. The film has an interesting opening showing the locale of the story — the Smith house — in Glasgow as it looked in 1950, with a narrator explaining that the neighborhood had once been far more fashionable than it is now, then giving us bits of exposition that get us into the story. It also has two actors with Sherlock Holmes connections: Eugene Deckers, who plays Émile’s friend Thuau (an official with the French consulate in Glasgow and the person who first reports his suspicions that Émile was murdered instead of committing suicide, which is the initial conclusion of the police and also the defense Madeleine offers in court) and frequently turned up in the 1954-55 Sherlock Holmes TV series starring Ronald Howard, Leslie Howard’s son, as Holmes (it had the proper Victorian London setting but was actually shot in France); and André Morell, who plays Madeleine’s attorney in the trial sequences and nine years later was Dr. Watson to Peter Cushing’s Holmes in the Hammer remake of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Some other odd cast members turn up, including the 18-year-old Anthony Newley as a chemist’s assistant (remember that what the British call a “chemist” is what we call a “pharmacist”) who gives a key piece of evidence at Madeleine’s trial.

The point of view Haynes and Phipps bring to their script is clearly that Madeleine is innocent — they and Lean clearly depict her drinking from the same supposedly poisoned pot of cocoa as Émile did in the first “poisoning” sequence (and before that they show her putting the poison in her wash basin instead of in anything drinkable), and in the second both Madeleine’s defense and the writers claim she had no opportunity to poison him because she didn’t see him in the final week of his life — but the final verdict [spoiler alert!] is not guilty on the first count and “not proven” on the second count, a verdict unique to Scottish practice in which the jury finds there is insufficient evidence to convict but is also unwilling to vote a full exoneration. The ending begs the question of what happened to Madeleine after the trial — according to her Wikipedia page, “The notoriety of the crime and trial were scandalous enough that Smith left Scotland. On 4 July 1861 she married an artist named George Wardle, William Morris's business manager. They had one son (Thomas) and one daughter (Mary). After many years of marriage, they separated and Madeleine moved to New York City and died in 1928 under the name of Lena Wardle Sheehy. … Most modern scholars of the case believe that Madeleine committed the crime and the only thing that saved her from the noose was the fact that no eyewitness could prove that Madeleine and Émile had met in the weeks before his death” — but in its own right Madeleine is a chilling movie and a marvelous example of how David Lean’s fabled understatement as a director could bring depth and power to what in other hands would have been a highly sensationalistic exploitation movie.