Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Happy Birthday, Joan Fontaine: Ivy (1947)

"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.


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

"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."

Lovely. I've never seen the film, but now it's on my list. Thanks.

Arthur S. said...

Another Edwardian set film that uses Poison as weapon of choice made around the same time is Robert Hamer's underrated masterpiece, Pink String and Sealing Wax.

Joan Fontaine is one of those actresses whose skills become more apparent with time and of course she worked with the likes of Hitchcock and Ophuls. My favourite Fontaine performance might be SUSPICION, for which she justly won an Oscar.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Chalk me up as another Ivy fan. Can't help wondering what it might have been like with Joan's sister in the lead.
Come to think of it, can't help but imagine a remake of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane with these two. My boyfriend Bill says "They're going to live forever, cause neither wants to give the other the satisfaction of dying first."

Guillaume Depardieu was a major movie star with a wooden leg. His performance in Rivette's Don't Touch the Axe is beyond great -- giving Rivette his first boxoffice smash in a long career devoted to the cinematically recherche.

Sadly Depardieu died a few years afterwards. He had a much wider range than his father, with whom he never got along (no surprise there, needless to say) but was undone by drug addiction.

eva said...

Oh deary me, I love this movie too. It even inspired me to read the novel, which is just as interesting.

I agree, it's one of Joan Fontaine's best performances, and this movie is so underrated! It's basically forgotten. She looks gorgeous in those Edwardian costumes. Herbert Marshall, in my opinion, was a little past his expiry date in this movie, but still, it's nice to see him. There's something so comforting about him.

This is such a coincidence, because today someone read out to me the definition of a psychopath, how they can't feel empathy for genuine affection for others, how they usually have good social skills, an superficial charm, and thus are able to manipulate people. They are apparently also usually asexual.

Out of all things my mind shot to this movie/book so it's funny you should mention it (and the fact that Ivy doesn't seem to like sex) on this day.

The Siren said...

Jacqueline, thank you so much. The Youtube upload really isn't bad at all, so unless you have a bootleg source I really would advise going there. It may be a while before this one makes it to legit DVD.

Arthur, so glad you admire Suspicion as well, and Joan in it. I have to say, old Hitch himself is somewhat responsible for its low rep, as seemingly every time it came up in an interview he went on about wanting Cary Grant to really be a murderer, and how he was stymied by the studio. As I mentioned in my link. Donald Spoto turned up some documentation to show that this was, shall we say, not the whole truth. And I think the movie works even with the ending it's got.

David, I didn't have my qualifier about Herbert Marshall in there at first, but then I thought, "One of my commenters is gonna know of another movie star with one leg." And so it came to pass. 'Swhy I love you guys so much. Olivia's stab at this kind of role, My Cousin Rachel, is a favorite of mine, although it takes a Madeleine-like "did she or didn't she?" tack.

Eva, that psychopath description fits Ivy to a T. You're right, this one is almost forgotten, and I'm so grateful to David and my kindly reader, as well as people who've mentioned it here before, for prompting me to sit down with Ivy at last.

Karen said...

Oh my god, that is just too delicious. DELICIOUS. Thank you for this.

Can we make a double-bill with My Son John??

Oh, and Marshall--not ALWAYS unsuspecting, surely? What about Trouble in Paradise? Doesn't he manage to keep up there?

The Siren said...

Karen, our beloved Herbert (and I do love him, really I do) seems to have lost his ability to spot a con every time Bette Davis hove into view. But it isn't really fair of me to say he was always unsuspecting, since he was a pretty good villain on more than one occasion, including Foreign Correspondent, and also played philanderers from time to time. He did put up with a lot, though; I remember him as Dietrich's suffering husband in Angel and waiting around for Katharine Hepburn in A Woman Rebels. He's also the blind foil for the lovers in The Enchanted Cottage, a movie Jacqueline and I share great love for. He is a truly overlooked actor who was almost always really good; he even comes off with dignity intact out of Duel in the Sun and The Black Shield of Falworth.

Rob said...

Totally off-topic, but I for one would love to see an SSS post on Gram Parsons.

Chris Cagle said...

A 1947 film I've not gotten to yet! Thanks for the write up.

Karen said...

Dietrich's suffering husband in Angel

Not to mention Blonde Venus! Apparently, he didn't do too well when Marlene was in the house, either!

The Siren said...

Rob, ha! That one may be a long time coming, though Gram is most dear to my heart.

Chris, I will be eager to see! Everyone should click through to Chris's name and his 1947 project, it's fabulous and I refer to it all the time.

Karen, you are right, Marlene was bad luck for Herbert too. Forgot all about Blonde Venus, how could I?

The Siren said...

Here's a direct link to Chris's 1947 project.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Ooh, sounds like a movie that is right up my alley! I hope that they show it on TCM. I own a copy of Lean's Madeleine but I haven't watched it yet. I had to order it from Amazon.co.uk.

DavidEhrenstein said...

He's also the over-indulgent father Jean Simmons has a borderline incestuous obsession with in Preminger's Angel Face

D Cairns said...

Magnificent piece! Really brings out how a good melo can be FUN without being campy. There's a real pleasure in all this wickedness, somehow rendered safely enjoyable.

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

I've seen a lot of Herbert Marshall recently - most recently Girls' Dormitory. There's a psychosexual mess for you...

Kevin Deany said...

"Ivy" sounds absolutely wonderful. I'd love to see it someday.

Joan Fontaine made another film about the same time called "From This Day Forward" with Mark Stevens, about a young married couple. It's suppose to be very good, but never saw that one either. Hopefully both will turn up on TCM.

And the day "The Constant Nymph" finally shows up will be a happy day for us all. It has to be with that cast.

Trish said...

I'm speechless. There are still treasures to be had! I just went to TCM and voted for "Ivy".

DavidEhrenstein said...

I just posted a note on the 1947 project.

(I was born in February of that halcyon year.)

Vanwall said...

A real all-star production, Siren. Oh, and so was "Ivy" - the lighting is exquisite, and the Fontaine was was great; it was Oscar caliber, but I suppose that wouldn't win many votes for a poisoner. Marshall is a big fave of mine, too, it had so many positives, thanks for the links.

gmoke said...

Herbert Marshall was also the movie stand-in for Somerset Maugham in the Tyrone Power "Razor's Edge" and at least one Maugham anthology film, if memory serves.

I've met two bona fide spies in my life, that I know of. The determining characteristic of both was their utter charm. Now, whenever I meet an utterly charming person, my antennae go up.

The Siren said...

Elizabeth, Madeleine is a treasure; the only DVDs I know of are imports (for us in the US); if anyone can englighten me with another please do.

Kevin, I really would watch this on Youtube if you're dying to see it; it isn't bad. It isn't in the same kind of release hell in which we find Letty Lynton (another Lowndes book, as is The Lodger) but it could be yonks.

David E., I forgot that one too!! He was in so much and is so easy to take for granted.

Beveridge, with a title like Girls' Dormitory I would be deeply, darkly disappointed if it were NOT a psychosexual mess, wouldn't you?

The Siren said...

David C., it's just another exhibit in my burgeoning museum display marked "Why David Gets to Pick All My Movies."

Trish, in all seriousness, Ivy is a good example of why I am so gung-ho about film preservation. Just because we're unfamiliar with a film, or have spent years hearing it's no good, doesn't mean it may not be a lost gem.

Gmoke, I knew a man who worked for a CIA propaganda outfit; and yes, he could charm the birds out of trees, though when I met him he was well into his 70s.

gmoke said...

Charm never ages, especially when it's been carefully learned.

The Siren said...

Gmoke, true, although in this case, I think the gentleman was born with it, too.

Vanwall, the cinematography was just gorgeous. I have a friend who complains that no one knows how to light women anymore; Ivy is certainly a good argument for that, especially if you see it back-to-back with some current movies.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Marvelous write-up. I will definitely check it out on Youtube. Fontaine is one of those actresses for me who sometimes literally vibrates with feeling - TRUE feeling. It can't be counterfeited. You know the real deal when you see it.

I too am fascinated by poisoning, Siren. Have you read The Poisoner's Handbook? I haven't, but it's definitely high on my To-Be-Read lists.

Unknown said...

Ivy is one of the best movies of Ms. Joan Fontaine. What fascinates me are the range of roles she took on the screen from the timid, lovable, Rebecca to the martyr-like woman in Letters of an Unknown Woman to the anti-heroine in Ivy and Born to be Bad. Tragic screaming from the top of the elevator down to.... oh my God, that's Ivy! That's the greatness of Joan. Mabuhay (Long Live!) at 93 and beyond.

Jennythenipper said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you! You nailed this film. I watched it a few months back on the youtubes and was completely baffled by viewer comments that Marshall wasn't hot enough to kill for. As you say, she wants his money first and foremost, but also she want him because he so wonderfully unsuspecting and gentlemanly. He plays this same character in The Letter and The Little Foxes as well, I think. And his voice is gorgeous as you say.

I've always loved Suspicion just because I thought it was a wonderful commentary on domestic abuse, where so often the victim goes knowingly to her doom. Of course they wussed out on the ending but so what. She still is willing to die because Cary Grant is just so charming you WOULD let him murder you.

And yes it's wonderful that Joan gets her own back and gets to turn the tables on her victim status.

grandoldmovies said...

Coming to the post a little late, but loved the writing in it. And thanks for the Youtube info. I possess a dilapidated VHS of IVY recorded from TV some years back; it's a little worn around the edges. The film is so gorgeous to look at, it really needs the full DVD-restoration treatment. Watching the film, I often find myself secretly sympathizing w/Ivy; after all, she just wants to live in that great-looking apartment; what cramped--dark-space city dweller wouldn't empathize with that? Really enjoyed your post.

rudyfan1926 said...

Delighted to have finally seen this courtesy of TCM. Sadly, still not available on a commercial DVD, that is criminal. what a terrific film, great lighting, fabulous angles (Ah! Menzies touch), a thoroughly wonderful film with quite a cast, O'Connor, Henry Stephenson, Paul Cavanoaugh (uncredited), Hardwicke, Sara Allgood, Lucille Watson, it's tremendous!