Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Walter Huston, Anne Revere, Gene Tierney and Vincent Price in Dragonwyck, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. Huston and Price compare suits.

Lately I've been watching films galore. Partly it's been a bonding of sorts with my sixteen-year-old foster child - he's been cajoling me into watching things I'm not particularly interested in. The 'Saw' series of movies, for example, which I'm much more than not particularly interested in. These are dreadful, intellectually dishonest pieces of barbarity, but perhaps useful for teens to watch, to sort out their own understanding of morality in extreme circs. I found them boring, laughable, but also offensive and insulting. Other films I've watched with him, just in the past few days, include Fido, The Butterfly Effect, Pulp Fiction and Stranger than fiction.

I might review at least some of these, but for now I'm going to review a film which I saw as a child, and which I've wanted to see as an adult for I wouldn't like to say how many years. All I remember about it really was that it riveted me, and profoundly scared me, though watching it now, I've no idea why. Over the years I seem to have got it mixed up in my mind with Hitchcock's Rebecca, for I expected a frightening mansion, a dour, skull-faced housekeeper, silhouettes in flames and other gothic histrionics. What I got instead was a solid, absorbing piece, with a subtly sinister character at its centre, played by Vincent Price [before he lost his subtlety].

Based on a novel by Anya Seton, author of popular historicals in the first half of the 20th, Dragonwyck has something of an Austen-like quality [think Northanger Abbey], with its central heroine, Miranda [Gene Tierney] starting out enamoured of the idea of rich rellies and the manor born. Instead she's mired in a puritanically religious farming family [Walter Huston's a real card as her father]. But guess what, her dream comes true, via a mysteriously unlikely letter from a distant, filthily rich rellie, who's not really a rellie at all [think Tess of the D'Urbervilles], and who wants the company of a beautiful innocent like Miranda to assist him in dealing with his daughter and sundry other matters, such as his wife. Eventually she coaxes Dad into letting her go.

Miranda is naturally very much taken with the tall suave and immaculately dressed Nicholas Van Rhyn [Price], as well as his mansion, Dragonwyck, but is aghast at the narcissism, gluttony and valetudinarianism of his wife. Their daughter Katrine is kept at arm's length, and all in all it's a far cry from the homely closeness of Connecticut farm life.

The focus switches for a while to Van Rhyn himself. He's having trouble with his tenant farmers [the film is set in the 1840s], who are rebellious about having to pay tribute and never being able to own the land they farm. Van Rhyn is an inflexible autocrat who insists on his divine rights [even though he has atheist tendencies and mock's Miranda's simple religiosity]. Obviously he's headed for a fall.

He's also increasingly keen to get rid of his odious wife [and increasingly keen on the melodious Miranda], and manages to do so, via some cake spiked with oleander, a plant which he obligingly brings into his wife's bedroom to cheer her up. He has a young doctor staying in the house, who's stunned at the sudden decline of Madam Van Rhyn after he'd diagnosed nothing but a head cold.
The doctor, who sides with Van Rhyn's tenant farmers, presents to Miranda an alternative to the dodgy aristocrat, but she still hasn't cottoned on, and she marries Van Ryn.

Relations begin to founder, of course. Van Rhyn spends more and more time in his tower room [taking unspecified drugs], no doubt plagued by guilt, affected by rumours about his first wife's death, and unable to cope effectively with the rebelliousness of his tenants. Miranda's also hurt by his cynicism re her down-home religion, and by his contempt for the crippled servant she hires [Jessica Tandy in one of her first screen roles]. 'Deformed bodies depress me,' he says. Miranda's offended response is even more depressing - 'You talk as if it's her fault she's a cripple when it's simply God's will.' The typically American connection between atheistic tendencies and amorality is made clearly enough.

Miranda emerges as another element in Van Ryn's life that he can't control, and when the good doctor discovers that he's trying to do away with her as he did his first wife, things unravel pretty quickly. He's finally shot while resisting arrest, asserting his rights as lord of the manor to the end.

Dragonwyck isn't exactly a great film, there's a little too much of the Mills and Boon about it, and the themes of old world v new world, elitism and aristocracy v liberty and democracy, are touched on only lightly. There are other flaws relating to the translating of a novel into film. The doctor at one point tells Miranda he finds he has nothing to say to her, though they got on so well when they first met. This seems a condensation of the novel which doesn't quite make sense on its own. Also the young Katrine, the ostensible reason Miranda first came to Dragonwyck, simply disappears in the second half. Still it's an absorbing piece, the gothic elements of which are more effective for their restraint. The production values, the costuming and so forth, are immaculate, and the whole thing looks great. The print was superb. It was fun reaquainting myself with something I'd never forgotten, and yet had forgotten completely.

There's a useful essay on Mankiewicz's films here.



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