Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Classic Films in Focus: BLANCHE FURY (1948)

Of all the films I have watched so far in the Criterion Channel's Gaslight Noir collection, Blanche Fury (1948) is the darkest, even though it's also the brightest thanks to its use of gorgeous Technicolor. This adaptation of the 1939 novel by Marjorie Bowen (under the pseudonym Joseph Shearing) employs many of the familiar elements of Victorian Gothic fiction, including the governess heroine and the upper class's obsessions with legitimacy and inheritance, but it has more in common with Wuthering Heights than Jane Eyre in the romance department, with doomed lovers who are both far from innocent in their desires. Without spoiling the ending too much, let me at least warn you that Blanche Fury is true noir in Victorian dress, and no happy endings should be expected for any of the central characters. That said, it's a fascinating example of the overlap between traditional Gothic and noir, with a complex anti-heroine whose better angels are as dangerous to her as her demons.

Valerie Hobson takes the lead as the title character, a penniless young woman named Blanche Fuller who changes her surname to Fury when she joins her wealthy uncle (Walter Fitzgerald) and his household as a governess to the uncle's granddaughter, Lavinia (Suzanne Gibbs). Soon Blanche is married to her cousin, Lawrence (Michael Gough), but also engaged in a passionate affair with Philip Thorn (Stewart Granger), the illegitimate son of the estate's previous owners, who is now reduced to a servant in his own childhood home. The embittered Philip is obsessed with reclaiming the property for himself, even to the point of plotting to murder everyone who stands in his way. When Philip decides that Lavinia is just another obstacle to his plans, Blanche must choose between the man she loves and the innocent stepchild she longs to protect.

Hobson nimbly walks the fine line required for Blanche, who possesses both good and bad qualities that dominate her nature at different times. We first see her as a Becky Sharp type of adventuress, chafing under her subservient role as a paid companion and eager to improve her situation through marriage to the weak-willed but unfeeling Lawrence. At the Fury estate, her immediate kindness to Lavinia softens her, and her courage in retrieving stolen horses proves her fortitude. What seems at first like mere carnal lust for Philip develops into real love, which makes her choices in the third act all the more difficult, and she evokes our sympathy even as we recognize her complicity in the events that have brought her so much suffering. In addition, Hobson looks divine in the costumes and elaborate hairstyles worn by Blanche, with a finely made face that conveys hatred, love, and grief equally well in her many closeups. As the title suggests, this story belongs to Blanche and therefore to Hobson, but Stewart Granger has fantastic energy as Philip that evokes shades of Wuthering Heights' Heathcliff in his intensity and dark, brooding sex appeal. Their scenes together don't really need the confirmation of a closing door to tell us the nature of their relationship, while doors repeatedly closing against Gough's character symbolize the contrasting coldness of Blanche's marriage to Lawrence.

The real darkness and noir mood of Blanche Fury stem from the relentless sense of fate bearing down over the unfolding events, starting with the opening scene, which is actually the end of the story being told. The legend of the fierce ape who defends the Fury name and fortune serves to remind us constantly that the current family are interlopers who have usurped both the name and estate from the biological - if not legal - heir, Philip. Fate, as embodied by the figure of the ape, will not spare any of the usurpers as it works to restore the line of the rightful owners. Blanche's uncle and husband are too dim to sense the doom that hangs over them, but Blanche and the old Italian nurse (Sybilla Binder) both feel it. Fate wields a Shakespearean level of power here, so much so that neither Blanche nor even Philip can be considered free agents; they are pulled by forces they cannot fathom or resist. Blanche attempts to moderate the scorched earth tactics of Fate, but like many noir protagonists she suffers more for her good actions than she does for her evil ones, and Fate still wins in the end. 

The Gaslight Noir collection includes two other movies adapted from novels by Marjorie Bowen: Moss Rose (1947) and So Evil My Love (1948). Her 1943 novel, Airing in a Closed Carriage, was adapted as The Mark of Cain (1947). Valerie Hobson also stars in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Great Expectations (1946), and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). See more of Stewart Granger in Scaramouche (1952), The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), and Footsteps in the Fog (1955). If you enjoy melodramatic tales of governesses and forbidden love, try All This and Heaven Too (1940), Adam Had Four Sons (1941), and, of course, Jane Eyre (1943) or any of the other adaptations of the classic novel.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

My Criterion Closet Wish List

I really enjoy watching the Criterion Closet Picks videos where various actors and filmmakers get to choose movies to take home with them. Their selections reveal interesting details about their tastes and experience with film, although they do tend to favor certain genres, decades, and directors, partly because of the generational range of the guests themselves and partly because of the cinematic tastes cultivated by being in the film business. I don't own a lot of Criterion Collection discs because I spent many years building up a classic movie DVD collection back when they were more widely available and fairly cheap, but now that DVDs and Blu-rays of classic movies are much harder to acquire I am increasingly turning to Criterion and Kino Lorber to expand my collection.

The Closet Picks videos always make me wish I could afford a full scale Criterion shopping spree, but if, by magic or divine intervention, I got to be a guest on Closet Picks, what movies would I choose? I'd want to pick films I don't already own and that I have seen at least once and know I would enjoy owning. I'm limiting myself to eight movies because the Closet Picks videos only show a handful being selected, which means I spent a lot of time narrowing my list! 

Here's my fantasy Criterion Closet list:

I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) - I absolutely adore this comic gem from Powell and Pressburger, with Wendy Hiller as a headstrong young woman determined to marry a rich, older man in spite of the handsome Scottish laird fate suddenly throws her way. The location cinematography, the delightful visual style, and the wonderful characters make this movie truly special. 

Nightmare Alley (1947) - As much as I love the romantic swashbuckling version of Tyrone Power, I can't deny his brilliance as the scheming carny in this original movie adaptation of the novel. It's one of the weirder noir classics, but the carnival sideshow makes a perfect setting for noir's favorite themes. The Criterion Blu-ray has been in my Amazon wish list for ages, but other items keep taking precedence.

The Third Man (1949) - Carol Reed's fantastic post-war noir is such a great use of Orson Welles' sinister charisma. Who can resist Harry Lime? Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli are also terrific, and the musical score really gets into your head. I've seen this movie several times, but somehow I haven't managed to own it yet, even though I love it enough to build LEGO tributes to its more iconic scenes.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) - I would love to own all of the Ealing Studios films, but this one is especially hilarious thanks to Alec Guinness playing eight different characters. It's currently listed as out of print on the Criterion website, but I bet they still have copies in that closet. (It looks like Kino Lorber might have this and some other Ealing pictures available for those of us who can't get invited to raid the closet or launch a daring Ladykillers style heist.)  

Stagecoach (1939) - Along with My Darling Clementine (1946), this is one of my favorite John Ford Westerns, thanks to its amazing ensemble cast. John Wayne doesn't show up right away, but he has a tender romance with Claire Trevor that works beautifully and allows him to be sweet and vulnerable. I'm a sucker for great character actors, and this movie just bursts with them  - John Carradine, Andy Devine, Thomas Mitchell, and Donald Meek all have significant roles.

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) - I don't have an actual Boris Karloff movie on this list, but he's present in spirit for this wacky Capra adaptation of the stage play, in which Karloff played the role taken by Raymond Massey for the movie version. This is one my top Halloween favorites, so it's a shame I don't own it yet, but I went with the Criterion edition of I Married a Witch (1942) the last time I had to pick which Halloween comedy to buy.

Beauty and the Beast (1946) - Jean Cocteau's dreamy fairy tale is a great starter choice for kids and people just venturing into foreign classics. It's both deeply familiar and hauntingly strange, and Disney borrowed heavily from it for their own animated version of the old story. Every frame is just gorgeous, and I'd love to be able to revisit it whenever I want.

Mildred Pierce (1945) - This Joan Crawford tour de force is another one I've seen several times but haven't managed to pick up yet for my personal collection. It's packed with so many of the things I love in classic movies - female narratives, noir style, romance and melodrama, great cinematography and costumes. Women's noir fascinates me, and this is one of the very best of the genre. I especially appreciate the way it focuses on Mildred's relationship with her poisonous daughter and the lengths to which the guilt-stricken Mildred will go to protect her.

Two Criterion films I already own (both great!).

That's my wish list! Some of the movies that almost made the final eight are To Be or Not to Be (1942), Heaven Can Wait (1943), Hobson's Choice (1954), 3:10 to Yuma (1957), and The Heiress (1949), but there are dozens of others in the Criterion catalog that I would love to own. What movies would you pick from the Criterion Closet if you had the opportunity?*

* Reminder! If, like me, you enjoy classic movies on a more modest budget, you can get access to a wide selection of Criterion titles by subscribing to the Criterion Channel, which is a great bargain at $11 a month.

Friday, September 1, 2023

Gaslight Noir on the Criterion Channel

While many of the Criterion Channel's featured categories highlight newer or international films, the lineup for September 2023 also includes one of my favorite classic sub-genres, "Gaslight Noir." If you love films like Gaslight (whether the 1940 or 1944 version), this is a collection sure to send delicious chills up and down your corseted spine.

Most of the iconic noir classics take place in their own present day, usually the 1940s and 1950s, but gaslight noir sets the action in an earlier age, usually the 19th century and often in London or elsewhere in the UK or Europe, although looming manor houses in America can also provide a suitably sinister location. The protagonist is most often a young woman who is both victim and de facto detective, striving to solve a mystery before she meets a tragic end. The films provide a heady mix of Gothic sensibility, noir style, and romance, and many of them appeared in the wake of the success of Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) and the 1943 adaptation of Jane Eyre, the Gothic masterpiece that Daphne du Maurier's original novel of Rebecca uses as a thematic touchstone. 

Here is the full list of films available this month on the Criterion Channel as part of the Gaslight Noir collection (use the links to read my discussions of these films):

Ladies in Retirement (1941)

Gaslight (1944)

The Suspect (1944)

Experiment Perilous (1944)

Hangover Square (1945)

Dragonwyck (1946)

Ivy (1947)

Moss Rose (1947)

Blanche Fury (1948)

Corridor of Mirrors (1948)

So Evil My Love (1948)

Madeleine (1950)

So Long at the Fair (1950) 

While I've seen and written about several of these films, quite a few are new to me, and I'm really looking forward to watching them. I hope to add several new Classic Films in Focus posts about these movies in the coming weeks.

For more in-depth discussions of the Gothic tradition in film, check out my essays:

"Consuming Passions: Gothic Romance and the Bronte Sisters"

"The Housekeeper in the Gothic Film Tradition"