Sign Of The Ram, 1948. 8.5/10

A Bette Davis role if there ever was one; but, no, it’s Susan Peter’s playing disabled matriarch Leah St. Albyns. She pretty much lords it over the household, including her husband Mallory (Alexander Knox). Set in a seaside mansion, the stage is set for some gothic turmoil.

There’s other St. Albyns–Christine (Peggy Ann Garner), Jane (Allene Roberts), and Logan (Ross Ford), and Logan’s fiancee, Catherine Woolton (Diana Douglas). Plus we’ve got Leah’s secretary, Sherida (Phyllis Thaxter), Clara (the always interesting Dame May Witty), and Dr. Simon Crowley (Ron Randell).

Like a lot of movies from this era, we start at a train station, in Cornwall. We find Logan giving Sherida a ride to the family castle. On arrival, she meets Mallory and his other children, Jane, Kate (Catherine) and Christine.

Leah meets Sherida, whom she’s to work for. Seems like it’s a big deal discovering that Leah’s in a wheelchair. Anyway, Leah tells Sherida that she writes poetry. First she says the kids aren’t hers, and then she says they are, in a way. Yes, that’s the plot, in a nutshell.

Christine goes to say goodnight to her stepmom, they think Sherida will work out ok. Mallory shows her around the next day. He tells her about what happened to his wife; she’d been crippled when their boat capsized, slammed against rocks as she was trying to rescue the kids.

Simon comes visiting; Jane obviously has something going on with him. Oh, boy, here’s Clara, who meets Sherida for the first time. Apparently, the last secretary was a wash-out. Mallory brings some gardenias into his wife–wow, they sure get huge in that greenhouse there. Instant jealousy, though, as Sherida pops in, holding one of the same blooms. So what?

Leah plays the piano and sings for the family. Then we meet Catherine, Logan’s fiancee. Clara’s babbling on, while Logan and Catherine talk outside; weirdly, he feels he has to ask Leah’s ‘permission’ to go walking with Catherine. Somebody is at her chamber door, interrupting her chain-smoking.

It’s Christine, she’s heard “funny noises.” Leah wants to send her away to boarding school–like, yuuck. Sherida and Mallory hang out in the greenhouse; when he comes back in to Leah’s room she hints about a separation. He’s stunned, but she quickly back-pedals. She “loves the whole family, perhaps too much.” Hmm. Plot in another nutshell.

Meanwhile, Jane’s getting tootled up for Simon, and for the dance they’re headed too. He comes first to see Leah, announcing that he’s going to propose to Jane. She’s not pleased; Simon basically tells her that, though she disabled, she’s not ill. They talk astrology, that old ram thing. “This nonsense doesn’t amuse me” she says.

He goes for a body blow with “you do want to keep your little band of slaves together, don’t you? Including Jane.” Yep. She changes the subject. “You’ve kept me alive, Simon.” Ok. But Stepmom tells him that Jane wants to go away; and that’s after he objects when she assumes that their marriage meant that they will live at her home.

If that’s not enough interference, she then talks to Jane; she suggests that Jane “not take him too seriously.” Jane believes her. And ducks out of her date. Now Christine comes to Leah for succor. Logan and Catherine tell everyone that they’re going to check out an old tin mine. So, exploration time–the other end of it happens to overlook the spot where the accident occurred.

That is, there’s an opening to a cliff by the sea. They see a drawing they left on the rock years ago. Switch to a picnic below the cliff with Sherida and Mallory; they discuss Jane “Leah will talk to her.” But that’s just the problem. Back together with the others, Logan and Catherine announce their engagement.

And there’s an engagement party. Jane looks a bit uncomfortable. Logan goes out to talk to her; she says “there’s something going out in this house…an undertone.” Basically, she’s upset because Simon’s not there. Now Leah shows up to bug Catherine and Logan. She just says that they shouldn’t get married “so soon.”

She says she has a “right” to interfere in their plans. Abjectly, he agrees; but Catherine isn’t buying it. Looks like the old ploy that ‘if I can’t be happy,, then no one can.’ Boldly, Catherine goes to talk to Leah the next day. Leah does a complete turn-about–go ahead and get married! Now! But, we figure there’s a surprise; Leah has researched Catherine’s background (she’s an orphan).

Of course, her detective work turns up the interesting information that Catherine’s father was insane–hey, at least he’s not related to Jack the Ripper! It should be immediately obvious that Leah’s statement lacks all credibility. “These things are not necessarily hereditary.” Of course, Leah’s already told Logan. So we’re talking a childless marriage… y’know, Leah was never able to have kids either, fair is fair.

Man, that is wicked. Right now, although we haven’t got many scenes with Mallory, he must be the ultimate victim; all the others can at least technically leave. The vicar calls with what appears to be a suicude note from Catherine. Apparently, she’s headed for that mythic cave. Jane muses to herself (no one is very bright here) that both Catherine and Simon got cold feet just after talking to Leah.

Well, we’re all set for a denouement at that cliff; the spot that’s figured decisively in the family history. Will Catherine jump to her death? Of course there’s a thunderstorm; luckily, all the able-bodied people go looking for her. So, she’s rescued. Hauntingly, Leah lurks nearby.

Around Catherine’s bedside, Jane declares that she’s with Simon, holding him. Not only that, the whole insanity-in-Catherine’s-family deal is exposed as a hoax. Clara and Leah are sitting by the fire; Mallory chases the old bag off to actually talk to Leah. He tells her that neither Jane nor Logan is likely to come home again.

She refuses to believe that–kind of an anti-climactic discussion, after all. Christine, teary-eyed, tells Leah that nothing’s been right since Sherida showed up. Christine is up to something with Leah’s pills. Ah! The old warm milk laced with…stuff. Oh, man, it’s Sherida that gets the milky death syrup.

Mallory summons Simon. Incredibly, Christine not only admits the dastardly dead, she’s adamant that it was the right thing “somebody had to do it.” Seems to me that Sherda hasn’t done much the entire movie; the ‘flirtation’ with Mallory hardly qualifies as death-deserving event. Oh, Christine is indeed contrite. Sherida lives!!

Christine’s epiphany is to go to boarding school; by now anything beats this female version of Dracula’s castle. Speaking of Leah: nothing to live for now, woe is me! So, Leah rolls out of the house, into the fog, off the cliff. She’s done. The end. No more billable hours for Simon.

This is very well done. The cast fit their roles just so. My Bette Davis comment at the beginning might not have been so wise afterall; the drama gets a lot of energy from the outwardly youthful Peters. In fact, she’s competing with her step-children; a complete narcissist, Leah lacks the excuse of old age with its mask of bitterness.

Ironically, her disability directly relates to her unselfish love of those same kids; she literally sacrificed (part of) herself for them. But they are hardly ungrateful. Nevertheless, she must feel that they owe her. They must suffer emotionally the rest of their lives just as she will suffer physically in her life.

The plan works all too well for quite a while (we don’t know exactly how long has passed since the boating accident). That’s a bit of a flaw in the movie’s premise, though; I can see Christine buying into Leah’s plan, but both Jane and Logan are mature enough to have seen through her long ago. Maybe money has something to do with it.

Still, only a fairly weak person would disbelieve their own lover in favor of a domineering stepmother. It shouldn’t have taken Jane or Logan (or Simon or Catherine, for that matter) more than one or two thoughts to realize that Leah was manipulating them. With that caveat, though, everything else worked with elaborate precision.

Leah’s death was somewhat predictable, but the damage she inflicts along the way contains the story’s heart. With that in mind, I really don’t see the point of Sherida’s role. She’s obviously meant as a catalyst–to stir things up, and bring about change. For a while is seems that there’s the genesis of an affair between her and Sherida.

It might’ve been better if there was more to it; if nothing else, that would’ve made Christine’s attack on her a wee bit more believable. As it is, we’ve got an attempted murder–that everyone just ignores–undoubtedly because Sherida automatically forgives her.

The isolated quality of the setting (and the castle itself) certainly enhances the sense of intrigue, and dips into the unreal. The finer points of logic, and even emotional states, are suitibly blurred. Had this drama played out in a swanky London mansion, for example, Leah’s wicked spell would’ve seemed even more implausible.

An excellent drama; very atmospheric, with some great performances (Whitty’s role was lamentably minor). Highly recommended. 8.5/10.

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