Saturday, September 1, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: UNDERCURRENT (1946)

Directed by Vincente Minnelli, Undercurrent (1946) plays with the same thematic elements as other feminine thrillers like Suspicion (1941), Gaslight (1944), and Dial M for Murder (1954), but in spite of a very attractive cast the picture falls short of its genre peers. It’s an interesting and very unusual foray into noir territory for star Katharine Hepburn, with Robert Taylor and noir stalwart Robert Mitchum along for the ride, but Undercurrent never quite comes together as a picture, and it doesn’t use its impressive cast to the best effect.

Hepburn plays Ann Hamilton, the awkward spinster daughter of a scientist (Edmund Gwenn) whose latest work attracts the attention of a suave industrialist named Alan Garroway (Robert Taylor). Alan acquires more than he came for when he meets and marries Ann, taking her with him to Washington, D.C., California, and his family’s estate in Virginia. In every place, Ann learns more confusing clues about Alan’s history with his missing brother, Michael (Robert Mitchum), while Alan begins to seem less and less like the man Ann believed him to be.

The plot reworks the motifs of Gothic romance and film noir, with Ann hiding behind doors, peering into forbidden spaces, and playing detective in the mystery of her brother-in-law’s disappearance. Hepburn might make a better Ann if the heroine possessed more nerve, but she seems miscast as the coltish, self-doubting victim, if only because she has too much inherent strength of character herself. She gives as good a performance as possible considering the stark contrast between performer and part, but even Hepburn has her limits. Robert Taylor also does his best with Alan, but he needs more scenes in which to work the character’s darker side, and Robert Mitchum has so little screen time that he barely gets to do anything at all with Michael.

The supporting cast fare no better than the top-billed stars. Both Edmund Gwenn and Marjorie Main appear only briefly. Both were glorious character actors capable of breathing life into almost any picture, which leaves us to wonder why they were cast in the parts if they weren’t going to be put to good use. Leigh Whipper has better luck and more scenes as the Garroway estate’s caretaker, and he does a good job adding to the home’s Gothic ambience.

None of the actors can really be faulted for the movie’s failure to deliver, but Undercurrent is best appreciated by hardcore fans looking to see all of Hepburn’s minor films or survey the lesser entries in the noir canon. For a better pairing of Hepburn and Gwenn as father and daughter, try Sylvia Scarlett (1935). See Robert Mitchum’s signature performances in Out of the Past (1947), The Night of the Hunter (1955), and Cape Fear (1962). For different takes on Robert Taylor, try Westward the Women (1951) and Ivanhoe (1952).

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