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.)


Laura said...

Despite the fact I've yet to see anything that makes me think she's much of an actress, I've always been semi-fascinated by Valerie Hobson. She was more sophisticated, elegant, and poised than any seventeen-year-old had any right being in Bride of Franekenstein, but let's face it, her "figure like death" bit of hysteria early on was a jarringly cringe-worthy moment (though helped by the movie's campy beat). Even though those striking cheekbones were, well, striking when she played Estella in Great Expectations, her lackluster performance was a let-down from the wicked charm Jean Simmons had as young Estella. And Hobson was grandly beautiful in Kind Hearts and Coronets, and did a wonderful job at making the "great British lady" character a boring stiff like she was meant to be, but she was obviously overshadowed once more by the likes of Joan Greenwood.

So my opinion of her is wavering at best. But I've never outright disliked her, either. Just...disappointed she never quite lit up the screen for me. You've got me intrigued with your description of her performance here. Hell, those screencaps are enough to peak my curiosity; she looks like a cross between Maureen O'Hara and Moira Shearer, with a cruel eagle stare. And let's face it, I'll watch for those gowns alone.

The Siren said...

Laura, this was the best I've seen Hobson, too, although I quite like her as Estella, the culmination of what Jean Simmons is still perfecting in the early scenes. She looks very relaxed in that on-set still, doesn't she? Maybe that's it; she just unbent a bit.

estienne64 said...

My favourite Hobson performance is in Spy in Black: unsurprisingly, since it's one of my favourite films. It has its technical deficiencies, but it's a pretty good start to the Powell-Pressburger partnership. Hobson, suitably schoolmarmish, is matched with, and by, Conrad Veidt, who is on truly commanding form (people who only know his English-language work in Casablanca should get to know him in this and The Thief of Bagdad). Although the film cast Hobson and Veidt on opposing sides their chemistry was potent enough to warrant a second P-P film, Contraband, in which Veidt played a Dane, and therefore a suitable romantic partner for Hobson.

Peter Nellhaus said...

The only Marc Allegret film I've seen was with the English title, Plucking the Daisy, with Brigitte Bardot. Of more possible interest to you might by Zouzou teaming Josephine Baker with Jean Gabin.

The Siren said...

Peter - *lightbulb* I have seen Zouzou, and it was adorable, but what I mostly remember are the stars. "Plucking the Daisy." Er...well, it's an EVOCATIVE title, I'll say that. I'm sure Bardot looked great.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Fillin gin a bit more of blank, Marc Allegret was Andre Gide's boyfriend.
Gide went so far as to legallty adopt him -- which wasn't all that difficult as their affair began when Allegret was 15.

Valerie Hobson was Mrs. John Profumo.

Cue Dusty Springfield

The Siren said...

The picture of Marc Allegret on his Wikipedia page is arrestingly handsome. Younger brother Yves was not as good-looking but whatever he had on a personal level, it was enough to snag Simone Signoret.

Untouched Takeaway said...

Darn. David beat me to the Profumo bidness. Every bit of her acting ability would be needed for *that* part.

The Siren said...

P.S. Poor Valerie, I didn't bother with the Profumo connection, but yeah. In Shipman's mini-bio it's like you can feel him *straining* to be as nice as possible, and I did wonder if that was part of why. The last line is that as Profumo's wife "she stood by him during his difficulties," which is the kind of mordant British understatement that makes me love the whole dang island.

X. Trapnel said...

Yves also had it in him to make one great film: Une Si Jolie Petite Plage.

Trish said...

I haven't seen Blanche Fury in years -- and it was a tired video copy at the time. In praise of youtube... :D

I once found an old coffee table book, which featured the apartments of the rich and famous. If memory serves me right, the apartment of Hobson and Profumo graced the front cover. It was so "horror vacui"- I wondered how they could have possibly been comfortable with all the clutter and details... :O

Baildon Moor said...

I haven't seen much of Valerie Hobson's work, but I remember liking her a lot in the comedy/thriller This Man Is News that she co-starred in with Barry K. Barnes. I caught it on late-night television ages ago, but haven't seen it since.

Rachel said...

Now there's timing for you. I just finished up Footsteps in the Fog, yet another gaslight noir, and that one was quite a treat. Some kind soul has been stocking up on Stewart Granger films on Youtube which means I'm getting my fix of all those Gainsborough films and gaslight noirs. I wouldn't say Footsteps is Granger's best but he gets plenty of opportunity for seething resentment, as the Siren puts it. And of course, Jean Simmons takes that movie and completely runs away with it as the maid who blackmails him and loves him.

As for Hobson, well I can't say she's ever impressed me, but I'm quite willing to be impressed. Laura's comment on her looks sent me to Google Image and I've just now noticed what gorgeously striking eyes Ms. Hobson had.

gmoke said...

Always liked Valerie Hobson in "The Rocking Horse Winner," a great double bill with "The Fallen Idol."

grandoldmovies said...

I haven't seen Mr. Granger in this film, but I will second your opinion that he was an underrated actor, who could bring surprising conviction to the most unlikely roles (check out his performance in the Rita Hayworth clunker "Salome"). He's probably overlooked because of typecasting; those rakishly Hogarthian good looks and that lofty British accent seemed to have confined him largely to historical costume films, in which guys tend to be overshadowed by lace cuffs and pigtails.

Catmommie said...

Blanche Fury has been a favorite of mine for about 16 years now, since catching it on television late one night. I'd missed the opening credits, spotted Valerie Hobson first and then the color photography, and thought "Powell and Pressburger." Not, but close. As far as I'm concerned, you can never go wrong with sumptuous fine fabric and overripe romance. Bring on those Gainsboroughs, says I.

Beth Ann said...

Yes, this is a thoroughly gorgeous, enjoyable, movie. It really would be something to see it on the big screen. My husband and I watched it as part of a Stewart Granger kick we were on. Between this film and All The Brothers Were Valiant, he's sealed in my mind for brooding, amoral, angry types. He's the best thing about the latter movie.

The Siren said...

See, this is why I love my commenters; where else am I gonna find people who know their Gainsborough AND have seen not only Blanche Fury but also All the Brothers Were Valiant? I caught All the Brothers a while back; it was a good-looking movie with a plot that didn't quite move the way I expected it to. And yeah, Granger is quite good, certainly better than Taylor at his dullest. It's almost a dry run for Moonfleet.

panavia999 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Crocheted Lace said...

Absolutely one of my top favorite british melodramas. I hope your excellent post encourages other to watch this fantastic film. The love/lust scenes with Granger and Hobson are *very* sexy. Plus all that great color and melodrama and beautiful horses and costumes. Did I mention how sexy Granger is in this one?

Nocti said...

Just some semi-random notes to these comments on an old favorite, which I am happy to see recognized here.

1. I am surprised that no one has mentioned director Allegret's early association with the Dadaists and Surrealists (Duchamp, Man Ray).

2. "Gaslight noir" is a completely inappropriate characterization of this film. "Wuthering Heights Gothic" is far more apropos. I realize that the "G" word sends some scurrying, though, as its not nearly so hip as Noir.

3. Speaking of the Heights, how did Granger not ever play Heathcliff? Heads should roll for this omission.

4. "[W]hen she [Blanche] lays on the couch in Philip's room."


5. On the other hand, the wonderful phrase "savoir-seethe" compensates for for the grating misuse of "lay", above.

The Siren said...

Imagine my relief.

The Rush Blog said...

I had no idea that Stewart Granger's reputation as an actor was that low. Personally, I've always been impressed by him, especially in movies like "KING SOLOMON'S MINES" (which no one mentioned) and "SCARAMOUCHE".