Monday, April 16, 2012
Blanche Fury (1948)
As the restless ghost of Herbert Kalmus is the Siren's witness, the 1948 Cineguild production of Blanche Fury is one breathtakingly gorgeous Technicolor movie, even streamed on Netflix, which to the Siren's eye usually sands some details off old movies. From the first ground-level shot of horsemen riding hell-for-leather, to the last symbol-freighted moments in the house that functions as a malevolent character of its own, the Siren's eyes were begging for mercy because she didn't want to blink.
According to the not-always-trustworthy IMDB, the exteriors were lensed by Geoffrey Unsworth. The cinematographer for the interiors was Guy Green, a name sacred to all lovers of early David Lean, although the Siren knew Green's work from this period mostly in black and white. Mind you, she also loves The Light in the Piazza, which Green directed later in color; Unsworth was a great cinematographer who cut his teeth as a camera operator for movies like this one. So sure, the Siren knew this film was going to look good. But good lord, not this good. Projected in a good print, Blanche Fury could well be Gone to Earth levels of beautiful, even if the drama doesn't quite measure up to Powell and Pressburger.
And director Marc Allegret is regrettably a blank to the Siren, but based on Blanche Fury, he had formidable talent. Yes, she should have seen Fanny by now, but she hasn't; the Siren has been waiting for a chance to gobble up that trilogy in a format that does it justice. The Siren does have Marie Chapdelaine on her DVR so she's hoping to get on that forthwith.
Longtime patient readers will understand at once why the Siren pounced, as Blanche Fury ticks off all sorts of little pleasure boxes. It's what the Siren calls an Old Dark House movie, and what others have called gaslight noir, with a 19th-century setting in a stunning stately home (this thread at Britmovie offers details on the real-life house). It's based on a novel by Joseph Shearing, pen name of Marjorie Bowen, who also wrote the books behind Moss Rose and the luscious So Evil My Love. Shearing was drawn to Victorian murders, which unsettling obsession the Siren shares.
The Siren doesn't know this real-life case, but it proceeds much as you'd expect. Valerie Hobson plays Blanche, who's fallen on hard times and must make her living as a paid companion to querulous old broads who pay her peanuts and whine if they can't reach the book on their bedside table. Blanche may not be sympathetic to everyone, but the Siren was on the character's side from the moment she tells off her latest employer, Hobson's body remaining in its ramrod servant's posture as she hurls her humiliation back in the old lady's face.
So when Blanche is invited to live with her cousins at Clare House, mere minutes after the movie begins, we already know she's had enough of standing on the edge of wealth and privilege, and we also know her anger could lead her to do all sorts of things. Upon arrival, Blanche meets Philip Thorn (Stewart Granger), the estate manager, a kindred spirit because he's the illegitimate son of the dead owner, forever barred from inheriting the house and land he loves more than anything else. Standing in Philip's way are the Fullers, who've usurped the name of Fury: Walter Fitzgerald as the stiff, unfeeling father, and the late Michael Gough as his weak, cruel son. Rounding out this cozy household is Lavinia (Susanne Gibbs), the sweet-natured child Blanche is supposed to look after.
In The Great Stars, David Shipman rather acidly implies that Hobson's career owed a lot to her being married to Anthony Havelock-Allan, the producer of Blanche Fury. Be that as it may, the Siren thinks Hobson is marvelous here, moving from avarice, to lust, to still more avarice and finally to belated conscience. Shipman points out that Hobson was always the ineffable British lady; well, yes, and in this movie that has to be the case. Otherwise everyone twigs to Blanche from the beginning, instead of just Philip, who smells out the woman for the fellow predator that she is.
The men behind the camera helped give the long bones of Hobson's face a sensuality that mere prettiness can't match. And the Siren took such delight in the progression of Blanche's costumes and makeup, which surely show the care and taste that went into every aspect of this film. Black dresses at first, Blanche evidently in mourning for whoever died and left her penniless; gray half-mourning as she settles in at Clare, makeup a bit more obvious; color blazing out from her gowns and her lips when she succumbs to her lust for Philip. Then black again after the murders, Blanche's guilt turning her face, even her lips, into the marble of a tombstone. When she's in the witness box preparing to send Philip to his doom, the costumer (Sophie Devine) has edged the mourning dress with beading, as if to signal that a deadly Fury still has allure.
The Siren has defended Granger before, and will do so again. Nobody did seething resentment quite like this actor, and all his best roles (Saraband for Dead Lovers, Moonfleet, the fantastic Scaramouche, to name just three of the Siren's favorites) use that ability. He was so handsome, and so fiercely, dangerously sexy on screen, that he could coax a decent love scene of just about anybody. ("I'm a very good actor," he once said, with the sarcasm he often showed when asked about his long string of romantic melodramas. "I played all those love scenes with Phyllis Calvert, and we didn't like each other very much.") Alas, the Siren must place part of the responsibility for the things that don't work in Blanche Fury on Granger's shoulders, along with the screenwriters. Granger is all the Siren desired (and then some) early on, so attractive that he asks for a drink at the pub and you already know he's slept with the barmaid. But a late scene, where Philip's ruthless yen for mastery of Clare Hall has completely taken over his personality, plays as stock villainy of the worst kind, and Hobson's performance becomes cliched too: "Philip…you're mad." Not much better is a scene where we're supposed to question whether Philip is crazy enough to lure poor Lavinia, Bonnie Blue Butler style, to her doom. Granger recovers his savoir-seethe in the courtroom scenes, but the transition remains a bit abrupt.
But--did the Siren mention how incredible-looking this movie is? Let's just tick off a few high points.
1. Opening and closing scenes in Blanche's bedroom, as she drifts in and out of consciousness, including a final shot that was visually and thematically perfect.
2. Blanche's carriage rolling over the snowy road, a composition so stark it resembles black-and-white in color.
3. The firelit interior of the house's parlor, the warmth and luxury seducing Blanche, while the shadows in the room give us a warning she's too greedy to heed.
4. The swell of Blanche's chest under her dramatic, blood-red dress when she lays on the couch in Philip's room.
5. The austere light and atmosphere of courtroom scenes, aided by all that bewigged paraphernalia you get with British trials, the one jolt of color being the judge's red robe.
6. The hulking, dark-hued shots of the house, a motif maintained almost to the end. The details of the exterior are doled out in bits and pieces, and the camera shows you Clare's whole length and breadth only in silhouette. Then you finally get a spectacular long shot of the whole house gleaming in the sun--and you instantly realize that this sinister place is preening for its final triumph.
Blanche Fury can also be watched on Youtube at the moment if you so desire.
(By the way, the great Sheila O'Malley has a doozy of a post on The More the Merrier. You should read it.)