“A Filthy Night In A Filthy World!” intones Sir Percival (John Emery) as he and co-conspirators Frederick Fairlie (John Abbott) and Count Cisco (Sidney Greenstreet) plot to pry away Laura Fairlie’s (Elanor Parker’s) inheritance. Meanwhile, doppelganger Ann (Parker dressed in white), tries to save her ‘twin cousin’ from the greedy, murderous guys. Ann’s deal seems to be living in hidden quarters reached via secret passageways and in the surrounding woods.
Thankfully, Walter Hartright (Gig Young) arrives to stir things up. Kind of stupid of the three villains to let an outsider intrude. Well, that’s Wilkie Collin’s fault: there’s no story without Hartright’s role (what an apt name for a good guy). The Laura/Ann mystery certainly has nasty side-effects: an asylum, madness, escape, murder (by poisoning?), switching identities, abuse–with the makings of another murder, ghostly appearances… An excellent gothic horror recipe. Actually, as many have noted, it’s Greenstreet who’s the monster here. The way his moon-face looms out of the darkness is as chilling as any ghostly presence.
Fairlie is plenty creepy too. A passive-aggressive, misanthropic hypochondriac, he’s so incredibly nuts it’s funny. Comic relief, you could say so; disturbing, very. Surprisingly, Agnes Moorehead has a pivotal role as the Countess Fosco. She sort of inhabits the plot as it reaches the denouement. Both the Countess and the ‘real’ (?) cousin Marian (Alexis Smith) go about in black; a slightly ironic inversion of their positive roles. I suppose I’m used to seeing Young as a cool-cat in later roles; but he seems oddly innocent here, which suits his character well. All of the principal characters are well-cast.
Surely the Victorian origins of this story explain the intricate plot. I don’t so much mean what we actually see, but rather the web of the past that’s spinning into the present. That sort of family-history-in-the-closet stuff is just fine for novels; usually it just clogs up movies with too much non-visual exposition. But here, maybe because of the multiple perspectives, the off-screen drama is fairly elegantly woven in.
Just as it takes a coven of bad guys to conjure up menace in The Woman In White, the trio of the Countess, Marian, and Hartright are all needed to save the day, at least for Laura. It is good that Hartright gets Marian (smart, feisty, and gorgeous), but I could do without their whole future history portrayed as a lovely tableau of domestic bliss. Another Victorian necessity observed. In fact, the movie is so authentic that there is no question of suspension of disbelief. I’m not referring to the plot, except as it’s emblematic of the 1850s, but that the world we see and hear is perfectly Victorian–an otherworldly ability recreates an era. Very entertaining. 8/10.