Sort of an American Jane Eyre. Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney) goes to work for wealthy distant relation Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price). Miranda’s charge there is young Katrine (Connie Marshall). Vivienne Osborne is Nicholas’s pastry-chomping wife Johanna. Dragonwyck itself (the Van Ryn mansion) is magnificent. When Miranda asks Nicholas how many rooms and servants Dragonwyck has, he nonchalantly replies that he doesn’t know (as in, who’s counting?). A sort of storehouse of family history and legend; Dragonwyck’s significantly draped with a portrait of Nicholas’s great-grandmother, and trimmed with ghostly music and singing.
The maid (Anne Revere) underscores this atmosphere right away, laying out to Miranda a combination of gossip, innuendo, and veiled threats. Soon, Dr. Jeff Turner (Glenn Langan) appears to liven things up; he’s drawn to Miranda, but obviously doesn’t get on with Van Ryn. Apparently, the colonial Dutch patroon system is still functional, with distinct similarities to the post-Civil War southern plantation–sharecropping is the norm–with an inherited caste structure. It’s the politics that divide Van Ryn and Turner, and Miranda from the rest of the upper-class ladies.
At least Van Ryn backs her up. Maybe too much so, as he seems to ignore his wife. Now we get to a dark-and-stormy-night. Almost comically, Nicholas and Johanna dote on a favorite oleander. Johanna appears to be on her death bed; Turner looks in on her, giving him an opportunity to check up on Miranda too.
Katrine wanders around at night, hearing singing and music–that is, the ghost of the ancestor in the portrait. Now, Johanna is really done for–too much cake, or maybe overly-fragrant oleander. Naturally, now Van Ryn can start courting Miranda. She heads home for a visit, but not before Jeff all but proposes. Back at the family farm, Pa ain’t exactly pleased with her uppity airs; and, by cracky, Nicholas is coming to visit too.
To discuss marriage, we assume. I can’t see why she prefers Nicholas over Jeff. It seems that she’s bought into being a Van Ryn; but, she quickly feels that something’s off–perhaps because Nicholas seems to be an atheist. I don’t get why there’s a new maid (Jessica Tandy); also, what happened to Katrine? Anyway, Miranda’s pregnant, so Katrine’s replaced, so to speak.
Still, there’s complications, the baby doesn’t make it. Having maliciously insulted the new maid for a physical disability, Van Ryn gets his unfortunate comeuppance, as his son had a heart defect. Anyway, Miranda gets curious about the secret tower that’s Nicholas’s retreat. She goes up there to find him napping. He hides out there to do drugs.
She lays into him for such weakness–it’s true, there’s nothing noble or exalted about his problems. “Let me be unhappy with you!” she tells him, now comforting. Turner, who seems to be permanently on-call, is summoned, this time for Nicholas. Nicholas goes off on her “What you are is the reflection of what I want you to be!”
But he’s going nuts, hallucinating the harpsichord and singing. Jeff, having gotten wise, mentions the ever-present oleander: it is poisonous! So, Nicholas did kill Johanna with its extract or some such. Nicholas and Jeff fight, Miranda leaves. Nicholas staggers around outside, imagining that the locals are after him.
Actually, they are, along with the sheriff, presumably for killing Johanna. He pulls his gun on them, but is shot first. The ending is tantalizingly ambiguous, in that Miranda isn’t just swept up by Jeff. She’s going home. But she definitely leaves the door open for him, and he knows it.
Dragonwyck is entertaining–especially visually. It starts and ends well, but drags quite a bit in the middle. The social/political subplot is interesting, but really belongs in a different movie. This is a psychological drama, and succeeds to some degree in establishing a sense of mystery, violence, madness, and horror. There’s just not enough of all that cool gothic stuff.
Both Johanna and Katrine are gone too soon. The actual murder plot is well-conceived, although the poisonous plant, while an interesting device, is ironically way overused. The ghostly ancestor angle had nice potential, but is used just to mark other tragedies, rather than engendering its own mayhem.
Price is very well-cast as an aristocratic tyrant. Tierney brings her beguiling sense of natural graciousness. The only problem I have with the cast is Harry Morgan, whom I automatically find insufferable. Langan isn’t very exciting, but he’s a good counterpoint to Price. As mentioned, Langan’s character is much more suitable for Tierney than is Price’s: Jeff isn’t wealthy, but he has position in the community, and is far and away a better guy than the loose-cannon Nicholas.
Farmermouse was set up by Johanna as the pastry patroon, which was quite a treat–so he gives this seven dark-and-stormy-nights. 7/10