Monday, May 11, 2009
The Sign of the Ram (1948)
We all have one--a certain type or genre of movie that catapults us back to youth. You curl up on the couch and refuse to budge till it's over, even if the movie isn't that good, because it pushes all the right buttons and you can't resist. There's a movie out right now that fits this definition for a lot of people.
In some sense the Siren's whole blog is devoted to glued-to-the-couch movies but there's a particular group that always holds her captive. Most people call it The Old Dark House genre even though that term has some horror-movie associations, and the Siren mostly isn't talking about horror movies. Here are the elements the Siren most wants to see:
1. An old dark house. (Acceptable substitutes include old dark hotels, as in So Long at the Fair).
2. Sinister retainers. (Mrs. Danvers remains the gold standard although in Gaslight, Angela Lansbury did a magnificent job proving you could be young and sexy and still retain in a sinister manner.)
3. A heroine whom someone tries to kill at least once before the credits roll.
4. Mysterious doings by either a ghost or a malevolent human. A truly great example might even have both (e.g. The Uninvited).
5. At least one storm during the course of the narrative. There must be howling wind, sheets of rain or snow and either the power must go out or the gaslight or candles must flicker like crazy. (The Spiral Staircase is perfect in this regard.)
Those are the main categories. There are other nonessentials, that nevertheless earn the movie bonus points. They include: a dashing hero trying to help the imperiled heroine, casement windows, cliffs, the sea pounding against a rocky coastline, a good long scene with the heroine running around the house in her dressing gown, and one or more characters rushing outside during the aforementioned storm and getting soaked to the skin.
In addition to the movies named above, others that earn a high score include I Walked with a Zombie, Dragonwyck and the marvelous The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, which manages to fit most elements despite being a noir and not really a mystery/romance. Since an early age the Siren has devoured these movies like a plate of cupcakes, so having a new one is an unusual treat for her. And thanks to TCM, last night that's exactly what the Siren got, with their screening of the hard-to-find The Sign of the Ram.
The Siren has seen Random Harvest (not an Old Dark House entry, but great) at least twice. But she had never heard the sad story of Susan Peters, that movie's ingenue, until she read about it on Robert Avrech's blog some time ago. Peters was a rising star at MGM until a hunting accident left her paralyzed from the waist down. Peters went several years without making a movie, but finally she went to Columbia for this vehicle based on a novel by Margaret Ferguson. The story (which pace Wikipedia, is not a noir) is set in an old house in Cornwall and concerns Leah, who is confined to a wheelchair after an accident. We're told her stepchildren were swimming near an abandoned tin mine and began to drown. Leah swam out and rescued them, but a sudden undertow pulled her back and dashed her against the rocks, breaking her back. Now she wheels herself around the family manse, writing Hallmark-level poetry for women's magazines and impressing everyone with her angel-in-the-house bit, quite like What Katy Did if you ever read that as a child. Except this Katy, instead of figuring out cute holiday celebrations, figures out that her now-grown stepchildren are about to get married and leave her alone in her Old Dark House, and she starts plotting to keep them all there.
The supporting cast is pretty good. Alexander Knox, a few years removed from Zanuck's disastrous Wilson, is almost as sexy as he was in that biopic, but you nonetheless believe in his devotion to Leah. Peggy Ann Garner, just three years on from her fine performance in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and with a considerably filled-out physique, does well with the hardest role, as the youngest stepdaughter who hero-worships Leah to the point that you start to catch some lesbian overtones. One surprise to the Siren was fellow Alabamian Allene Roberts, who annoyed me in The Red House but one year later did much, much better with practically the same part in this movie. Apologies to Allene, who is alive and living in Huntsville. Phyllis Thaxter is also quite creditable in a thankless role as the innocent secretary, ostensibly the heroine but not really around that much. (She's bizarrely named Sherida. I wonder if the novelist explained that? I kept waiting for her to launch into a story about how her mother saw The School for Scandal and went into labor, but no dice.)
The Sign of the Ram is diminished by an abbreviated script that leaves the plot at loose ends--you never do find out whether there was anything more to the swimming accident, for example. Some previously clueless characters get sudden mental-lightbulb moments, while others are wised-up one minute and swallowing Leah's lies in one gulp the next. There is a great deal of talk about swimming in the movie, and yet every shot shows a wave-tossed rocky coast that nobody in his right mind would so much as wade in.
But the movie succeeds or fails for the viewer based on Susan Peters, and the Siren thought she was superb. It's a demanding role that requires the actress to be both charming enough to make the family's devotion plausible, and yet subtly crazy enough that her later machinations don't come out of left field. She's wonderfully gowned by Jean Louis, wheeling around in an upholstered wheelchair with a cloud of skirts fanning out from her tiny waist. The Siren was fascinated by her lovely hands and dark-red nail polish, suggestive of both a doll and Lady Macbeth. Peters keeps her face serene in many scenes but the hands always tell the real story, carefully arranging a sleeve or fluttering over piano keys as she "plays" the people around her. The lady was talented indeed. Just watch her sitting up in bed, lighting one cigarette off the butt of another (not a gesture you see too often in 1940s movies). The way Peters sucks in her cheeks is the most deliciously neurotic thing the Siren has seen in an old movie in quite some time.
The movie will also remind many viewers of the similarly themed Leave Her to Heaven, though it's in black and white. Sign of the Ram's interiors are mostly small and cozy and yet the atmosphere, via director John Sturges and cinematographer Burnett Guffey, fulfills all the menace you want from an old dark house. There are several scenes in Leah's fireside sitting room, which is all decked out in flouncy florals. But Sturges lowers the camera a bit so you usually get the beamed ceilings in frame, as the bars that are holding down Leah and her family. Instead of the noirish "cage" lighting you might expect, the shadows in the shots are usually suggestive of webs, particularly in one scene where a set of lovers plans a future together, all unaware of the lady plotting their doom. The visuals hit all the checkmarks the Siren listed above, too, including a wonderful introductory shot of Leah appearing in a casement window below Sherida's.
Not a great movie, but a good one, and it suited the Siren just fine. The print was gorgeous, so let's hope someone notices the film's cult status and finally gives it, and poor doomed Susan Peters, the wider fame both deserve.
P.S. If you share the Siren's love for this genre, or even just appreciate atmosphere, check out the Siren's new picture-blog discovery, Obscure Hollow ("for the love of haunted film decor and more.") How have I lived without this place? Why did no one tell me about it? The above still from Dragonwyck is taken from it, but the screen grabs from The Spiral Staircase are even more swoonworthy.