Saturday, June 23, 2007


Because every plot summary I've read of this movie mentions two "nutty" or "batty" or "crazy" sisters, I had it in my head that this was a dark comedy on the order of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. It's dark, but it's not a comedy; it's more like the ARSENIC situation done in the style of a Gothic thriller like NIGHT MUST FALL. Ida Lupino is the housekeeper for a retired actress (Isobel Elsom) who lives in a quaint old cottage out on the moors. They have a good relationship, with Elsom saying she thinks of Lupino almost like a daughter, until Lupino gets word from London that her two nutty/batty/crazy sisters are about to get thrown out by their landlady. She brings them (Elsa Lanchester and Edith Barrett) to the cottage for what Elsom thinks is just a short visit which stretches into six unbearable weeks. The sisters aren't exactly dangerous, but they are definitely eccentric what with Lanchester constantly "cleaning" the moor, bringing twigs, dirt, and dead birds into the cottage and the more whimsical but still annoying Barrett fluttering about. The old lady issues an ultimatum and when Lupino balks, not wanting to dump her sisters in an institution, Elsom kicks them all out. Lupino, at the end of her rope, kills the old lady; she tells the sisters that she's bought the house from Elsom, and she tells the neighbors that Elsom's gone on an extended vacation. Enter Lupino's charming but ne'er-do-well nephew (Louis Hayward) who has embezzled money from a bank and needs a place to hide out. Lupino has no choice but to let him stay for a while, but when he begins putting two and two together and realizes that Elsom must be dead, a war of nerves ensues.

The film is rarely truly tense, but it is well paced and occasionally creepy, though a scene that involves the possible appearance of a ghost could have been handled better. Lupino is excellent from first to last, underplaying her part and making it all the more effective, and Lanchester matches her in a role quite different from any other I've seen her in. Evelyn Keyes does good work as Elsom's maid who gets drawn into a flirtatious relationship with Hayward, and Emma Dunn has a small role as a nun who pops in every so often as a plot device to announce one thing or another. The sets are very stagy but spectacularly atmospheric; the foggy moors look weird even in daylight, and the cottage seems cozy, lived in, quite inviting, and spooky all at once. The script is also stagy; like the film versions of NIGHT MUST FALL and the later WAIT UNTIL DARK, it's clear that this hews closely to the original play, but that's not a liability. There seems to be an interesting element about the relationship between Lupino and Hayward--a past flirtation or some such weirdness--that is only hinted at. The ending is, in my eyes, both too pat and a bit too ambiguous, possibly in order to satisfy the Production Code, but it doesn't ruin the film. This is another of those gems from the Columbia Pictures vault which has been out of circulation for a while, so if it crops up on TCM again, see it while you can. [TCM]

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