Gothic Ladies and Noir Thrillers
by Kristin Battestella
Be it medieval, Victorian, then-contemporary, foreign or domestic, these black and white mid-century Gothic thrillers deliver all the deliciously delightful femme fatales, moody noir dangers, and suspenseful scares.
Fear – Hypnotic credits, eerie music, and spooky headlights give way to more classic cars and Ingrid Bergman dolled up in sophisticated business suits, brooches, and furs for this 1954 black and white noir. Although the opening narration explains the illicit with an expected melodrama and this tale can be confusing with its spoken Italian, English subtitles, and German setting; the voiceover feels unnecessary. We see Bergman's guilt via her ripping up love letters, escalating fears, and nasty arguments. Her superb tearful phone calls and the silent suspense scenes let the viewer enjoy the downward spiral – this once progressive wife who does the driving and runs their laboratory post-war just can't handle the scandalous. Mrs. Wagner says she has nothing to lose, but drop the scoundrel and she still has a career, family, and wealth – in the mid-fifties to boot! There are numerous shots of Bergman coming and going, up and down, or in and out, however these movements keep the audience with her while reflecting the internal hectic and hurried state of mind in the otherwise calm, still settings. Such symbolic action does better than the narration, and car filming both facing fast driving Bergman as she grips the wheel and the crazy twist and turns from her point of view show more angst. Contrasting white rooms and dark figures with stairs or windows breaking the film frame layer the visuals while fun science gizmos, sounds, experiments, and poisons create realistic foreshadowing. Missing toys and absent jewelry accelerate the patience wearing thin amid talks of denial, confessions, shame, love, and disappointment. Our dame can come clean but lies to cover her tracks and argues with both husband and lover instead. This is an interesting subject matter for the real life couple – a bit of life imitating art and at home neorealism from director Roberto Rossellini. Granted, this can feel Hitchcock derivative by recalling the more stylish Spellbound as well as Gaslight. There are some red herrings and an abrupt end to the otherwise swift eighty minutes, too. Fortunately, this remains an interesting psychological examination on external pushes versus internal apprehension while debating two opposite female perceptions. Be it the frazzled classy dame or the smooth dance hall girl, both are being used by high and low men, frequenting hotels, tossing money about, and fooling nobody. Twists and thrills in the final twenty minutes keep the audience hooked for this suspenseful little character study accented by a taboo topic or two.
The Long Hair of Death – The streaming print of this 1964 Italian fifteenth century Karnstein tale starring Barbara Steele (Black Sunday) is a poor quality ninety-four minutes. The English dubbing and volumes are uneven with an innate, drab, unpolishedness and a tough to see dark, choppy bare. Fortunately, ominous music and flickering torches immediately set the Gothic, gray scale castle mood alongside hooded guardsmen, dungeons, secret passages, and witch executions. Chases, cliffside shockers, zooms, and sharp cuts accent the atmospheric winding stairs, shadows, candlelight, and medieval windows as daughters are forced to watch their mother burn at the stake in disturbing, fiery action. The audience is on the wronged women's side thanks to such trials and forced saucy, and generational fears, disobeying sons, and witchy legacies simmer amid plague hysteria, storms, requiem rituals, chanting, and deaths. We don't blame the ladies for their curses and vengeance, and Steele is a lovely anchor as ever with divine hair and costumes. Sadly, the story does drag and at times doesn't seem to know where it is going. Lecherous, manhandling violence against women – who are portrayed as feigning no or liking it rapacious – is unpleasant and plodding relations meander about the castle seeming to change sides as needed while viewers wait for the comeuppance. Crosses and sacrificial motifs, however, add an interesting commentary, as the hypocritical church here is ready to burn the condemned at the stake and bury the supposedly devout whether either is really right or wrong or not. This live-in priest rules the roost with a spiritual quip for everything whichever way the wind blows and uses the plaque superstitions to his own advantage. Grave scenery, creepy resurrections, wicked entries, and fatal switches help this curse come to fruition along with alluring deceptions, poisons, and wild Wicker Man effigies. It might be interesting to see this one updated or at least have this kind of Gothic period piece movie come back in full force, per favore, as some murderous toppers and suspenseful tomb twists keep this turnabout is fair play sweet.
Seance on a Wet Afternoon – Oscar nominated medium Kim Stanley (The Right Stuff) and her husband Richard Attenborough (The Great Escape) star in this moody black and white 1964 British two hours based on the Mark McShane novel. Shadows, candles, weeping ladies in pearls, and whispering circles set the tone immediately alongside classy then contemporary touches such as driving goggles, sidecars, phonographs, and old fashioned, cluttered interiors – it's sixties, but with a faux Victorian mysticism. The lady of the house is domineering, claiming her plans have the blessing to do what needs to be done, yet she wishes she were normal instead of channeling sorrow and makes her weak, complacent husband do the dirty work. Is she crazy or is something paranormal at work? Talk of a mysterious, maybe ghostly, maybe imagined “Arthur,” peep holes, boarded up windows, school bells, and gaslighting actions make the audience take notice. There is a lot of talking set in the few rooms of a creepy, oppressive house, however the unreliable mindset hooks the audience without insulting us. Dangerous drives, escalating music, and camera zooms accent any slip up and or the chance for things go wrong while the editing of a ransom note is almost humorous in its casual word choices and disturbing calculations on this “borrowing” plan. Viewers both understand and like these perpetrators – they are at one strong enough to pull this off yet incredibly vulnerable and taking tremendous risks. However, we are also disgusted by their hospital ruses and psychic ploys even if we feel sorry for the villains, victims, and agree with a rightfully skeptical father and suspicious law enforcement. Tensions escalate along with the crimes – what was once such a perfect plan orchestrated by an unstable wife is now we, we, we intense and ready to snap with the heat showing as sweat on everyone's brow. Layered tours and intercut chases up the nail biting twists as one séance too many might unravel this chance to be famous by solving your own crime. Well acted intensity and warped grief make this taught little thriller perfect for a rainy day.
Uncle Silas – Jean Simmons (Guys and Dolls) is just lovely as an 1845 heiress in this 1947 black and white mystery based on the J. Sheridan Le Fanu novel. While the print looks old and the production itself seems British post-war strapped, there's a green tarnish or mood as if this were nineteenth century footage. Tea and countryside estates carry a grand innocence alongside bonnets, frills, and petticoats – this 16 year old with little girl curls, white gowns, and maids checking for dirty hands still needs a governess. It's a talkative start with a lot of history to address, but these dramatic comforts quickly turn to sullied relations, past scandals, and shocking faces at the window. The Gothic tone increases with rainstorms and stairwell motifs as abrasive teaching montages and harsh French recitations shape a noir-ish, dreamy atmosphere. Wild plumes and contrasting black garb draft a tempting, imposing adulthood with shady folks itching at the reading of the will and creepy singing in the cemetery. Spooky candles, shadowy lanterns, and foreground or background light and dark schemes make the households increasingly darker, and tight zooms fit the melodrama better than the sweeping old fashioned music. Dangerous carriage rides and travel trickery lead to more hazy twists and whirlwind montages not unlike future Bava suave. Cobwebs and locked rooms with crazy surprises sell this change in fortunes despite a predictable middle with a titular move reset, too many surplus characters, and a weaker cast surrounding Simmons. Fortunately, icky cousins, creepy uncles, and inheritance schemes suggesting saucy and abuses rougher than this Bronte veneer invite viewers to read such implications for more wickedness. With the one hour and forty five minute version now available on Amazon Prime, it's surprising this Gothic mystery drama with certainly frightful scenes and discomforting simmer isn't more popular with early horror viewers and Victorian literary fans.