"It's a perfect fascination, my attachment to that girl. If she were to poison me, I would forgive her."
--Emile L'Angelier's tribute to his lover Madeleine Smith, from testimony at Madeleine's 1857 trial for poisoning him with arsenic.
The Siren has non-film obsessions that she discusses here not at all (scarves, sonnets, Gram Parsons) or not that often (Victorian novelists, perfume). She's mentioned her love of a good vintage murder only once or twice, when discussing David Lean’s fabulous Madeleine, but there’s nothing like a good domestic poisoning case to get the Siren feeling all’s right with the world.
So she was predisposed to like Ivy, the 1947 film about a poison-wielding Edwardian belle, even had it not starred Joan Fontaine at the peak of her beauty and talent or been directed by Sam Wood and produced by William Cameron Menzies, who probably contributed a great deal to the film's stunning design. Furthermore, it was lensed by Russell Metty, scored by the same man who did Letter from an Unknown Woman, Daniele Amfitheatrof, written by sometime HItchcock collaborator Charles Bennett, and the costumes were by Orry-Kelly, who set off Fontaine's features with wide-brimmed hats and fetching veils. All that, plus Herbert Marshall once more looking at a conniving snake of a woman and deciding, "Hey, she's pretty cute.”
It was, in short, 99 minutes of ecstasy, and the Siren felt the same way as David Cairns, "as if someone had cut me open and inserted a big cake made of happiness.” (The Siren stole some of these screen caps from David, with his kind permission.) Ivy is criminally unavailable on DVD (the Siren’s copy was a gift), so you can take David’s suggestion and start a letter-writing campaign, or you can take a break from reading this and watch Ivy in its entirety, and looking pretty good despite Spanish subtitles, on Youtube (start here)--quick, before somebody takes it down. The Siren recommends the latter course.
Why does the Siren like a good poisoning case, you may well be too afraid to ask? It's psychologically interesting, that's why. Poison is said to be a woman's method, stealthy and nonviolent. Provided you are trying to mimic a debilitating illness, or you don't happen to have a movie-style clutch-heart-and-keel-over toxin in the medicine cabinet, it’s also exceptionally nasty. Poison requires you to eye the pain-wracked victim and muse not only, "Young man, I think you're dying," but also, "Time for another dose." Poison is a vision of Madeleine Smith, everybody's favorite Victorian murderess, listening to her unwanted lover complain about the jagged-toothed animal trying to gnaw through his guts and, with a smile of womanly commiseration, handing him another cup of cocoa. Madeleine, in fact, is the ne plus ultra of female poisoners, remorseless and beautiful, so intoxicating that as Emile L'Angelier lay dying, and maybe knowing why, the closest he came to incriminating her was when he said "I cannot think why I was so unwell after getting that coffee and chocolate from her.” L'Angelier was blackmailing Madeleine, threatening to expose their torrid physical affair just as Madeleine was about to marry a nice merchant. The verdict against her was the classic Scottish "not proven," which someone once translated as "you're not guilty, but don't do it again."
Ivy, based on a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, has all sorts of echoes of Madeleine Smith, but the differences make the plot and Fontaine's title character all the more irresistible. Ivy is guilty; some think Madeleine was innocent (although the Siren’s view was well put by F. Tennyson Jesse: "Probably she did it, but anyhow he deserved it").
And Ivy's psychology also veers from that of the sensual Madeleine. As played by Fontaine--and the Siren ranks this among Joan's best performances--Ivy gives every indication of not much liking sex at all. She endures the caresses and importunings of her millstone husband and discarded lover as one might absently pat an overeager Pekingese. When she goes after rich, unsuspecting (wasn't he always, poor lamb) Herbert Marshall, Ivy displays herself like a piece of Wedgewood--not something to be seized with vulgar hands, but rather to be wrapped in tissue paper and taken home to a proper setting in the nicest room in the house. It isn't men who bring a flash to Ivy's eyes and a flush to her cheekbones, but mansions, large boats, feathered hats and, most of all, spangled handbags with cunning secret compartments.
Sam Wood hooked the Siren from scene one, as Ivy, in one of the cloud-like white dresses she wears through most of the movie, climbs the stairs to a back apartment, where Una O'Connor pops in to tell the future. No one in a movie ever goes to a fortune teller to be told "I've looked deep into your soul, my child, and everything is just ducky." No, they go to have the fortune teller start with "I see a journey" or "I see a dark stranger" or, in this case, "I see someone rich"--and then break off, rear back and flinch with dread at a ghastly presentiment. This O'Connor does, and Fontaine also does her duty, as the customer who shrugs off the bad news as a supernatural false alarm, crosses the psychic's palms with silver and hastens off to her fate.
Ivy is married to Jervis Lexton, a happy-go-lucky layabout played by an unexpectedly marvelous Richard Ney. He once had some money, but Ivy ran through it in short order, and now they live in dingy rooms and try to live well on nothing a year. Whatever motivated Ivy to marry him--impulse? infatuation? to get him to quit asking?--is long gone. As Jervis yammers away about how he loves her and they'll get by all right and he wouldn't dream of leaving, Ivy gently pulls at her collar as though she can't breathe. The Siren loved Fontaine doing this so much that she reversed the DVD three times to watch it again.
In addition to her husband, Ivy has an ex-lover who can't get over her, a noble slum doctor named Roger Gretorex (Patric Knowles). Perhaps Ivy once saw Gretorex as an escape, but then she found he lives in a shabby neighborhood and is always attending to injured urchins and what-not and my dear, it's just too dreary. What Ivy needs is a nice multimillionaire, like Una O'Connor promised her in scene one, and soon he appears, Miles Rushworth (Marshall).
Marshall and Fontaine together play two arrestingly gorgeous scenes, including one at a ball where Ivy asks Rushworth to dance, and he says he'd love to in that lovely voice of his. That had the Siren in a tizzy, since Herbert Marshall was (probably) the only man with an artificial leg ever to become a major star. Ivy and Rushworth get waylaid before they reach the dance floor, thank goodness, and play a conversation in front of fireworks. More beautiful still is a scene on Rushworth's yacht, where a thunderstorm comes up and their kiss is shot in silhouette.
And then there's the scene where Fontaine, showing more lust than she does at any other point, spies an expensive antique handbag in a window and deftly manipulates Rushworth into buying it for her. It used to belong to Marie Antoinette, the saleslady tells them, but surely this is a script oversight. L'Autrichienne did play milkmaid while peasants starved, but she didn't run around dosing them with arsenic. Perhaps Lowndes and Bennett were thinking of Madame de Montespan, another of Ivy's lethal sorority. Anyway. The purse has a clasp that opens to reveal a small hollow that's simply perfect for...golly, rouge would fit, or perfumed talc, or maybe face powder…
Ah, that's the ticket. So considerate of Dr. Gretorex to have that lying around his office, just as Rushworth leaves for South Africa and Ivy realizes her husband can't take a hint. (The poison is coyly unnamed, but the Siren thinks it's arsenic, once used to treat psoriasis as well as syphilis, as though the latter diagnosis weren't enough of a problem 100 years ago. And later there's another doctor checking Jervis's fingernails for the telltale white lines.) The moment Fontaine steals the poison is played with her face in shadow, her motivations all in the delicate way she opens the latch on her precious purse. Later, when she's fixing Jervis a fatal drink of brandy and and water, Wood keeps her hands just out of frame, as though sharing Ivy's conviction that it isn't really murder, she's just doing what a woman must, if she wants to be kept in style.
Gretorex tries to see Ivy and winds up making an inadvertent house call on the dying young Jervis, who's complaining about one hell of a hangover. Those factors enable Ivy, who's nothing if not opportunistic, to try to pin the murder on her ex-lover.
And here's the best thing about Fontaine in Ivy: As David also notes, it's such a delectable twist on her performance in Suspicion. In that unjustly maligned Hitchcock outing, where Fontaine was terrific, she's the upper-crust, tormented, tremulous wife of a no-good, but non-poisoning, husband. Here, she's the upper-crust, tremulous poisoner, with the same genteel mannerisms turned lethal. Watch Fontaine trying to maneuver her husband into divorcing her, delicately arranging herself on a sofa and moaning that she is no good for him. Catch her exasperation as this impossible sap insists that no, dearest, he wouldn't dream of it. See Fontaine look at Jervis dying, and show a fleeting bit of pity: "Pain should be quick," she reflects. And then, just like Madeleine, Ivy gives her victim another dose, like he's a suffering parakeet.
And there's Ivy, in bed after Jervis finally expires, shrinking back against the pillows as she's questioned by a gruff detective, as Lina in Suspicion cowered in bed with her eyes glued to a glowing glass of milk. Later, when Ivy realizes the law, personified by Sir Cedric Hardwicke and his eyebags, may be catching on to her, her eyelids flutter with repressed impatience at the lack of cooperation; it's like she's turning a key in a lock and the wretched thing simply won't open.
Joan Fontaine, long may she flourish, turns 93 on Oct. 22. Happy birthday, Ms Fontaine. There could be no better way for us all to celebrate than rediscovering Ivy.