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.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this first-rate post, Jennifer! I've watched several of the films in the Gaslight Noir series -- Ivy, Madeleine, So Evil My Love -- but I was going to pass on Blanche Fury. I'm not a huge Stewart Granger fan (I don't even know why -- I'm not sure I've ever seen any of his movies!) and that was really the only reason. But you can bet I'm going to check it out now!