Susan Hayward and Peter Finch star in this awkwardly titled romantic mystery, which took the eponymous 1958 book by Audrey Erskine Lindop – a neo-Gothic remnant of the ‘Had I But Known’ school – and refashioned it into a legal whodunit about mercy killing. The book has some good points but the movie’s revisions are almost entirely to its benefit, starting with the narrator …
I submit this book & film review for Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for review links, click here); Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo; and Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.
“Why don’t you like that little man?”
“Because he keeps hoping I’ll die”
Originally published in 1958, the novel is narrated by Harriet Godden, a woman in her late 20s who answers an ad to be the live-in companion in a secluded part of Shropshire. Liane is married to Major Charles “Lead” Stewart, a gentleman farmer who lives in a house so secluded that it still has no electricity. Liane, a child bride of barely 20, has an appealing innocence and directness but is prone to blackouts and mood swings, regularly making attempts when confused to get back to her old home of ‘Talla’, in Ireland. Harriet is there to keep an eye on her and help give the girl an education as her father, a drunken poet, let her roam as a free spirit but without providing any schooling. Harriet soon learns that “Lead” has not told her the whole truth as Liane’s father, who she believes to be dead after a car accident in which she was driving, is in fact alive and being paid to stay away. Harriet keeps making blunders and letting Liane get away from her and offers to resign more than once but doesn’t go because she is falling for “Lead” despite the attentions of the local barman, who proposes to her, and being warned off by nearly everyone in the village too. Slowly but surely Harriet’s feeling for “Lead” get stronger, even after she discovers his dalliance with another woman – but then, Liane is in full knowledge of this and seems blithely unconcerned.
“I have often wondered at which point I made up my mind to kill Liane.”
Lindop dabbled in various genres and was both a screenwriter, of popular historical tosh like Blanche Fury (1948), as well as author of The Singer Not the Song and I Start Counting, medium-list books later turned into middle-of-the-road movies. Fool can loosely be termed a suspense story but it has to be said that in almost every sense this book is pretty unsatisfying. The plot is thin and the characters both unattractive and awfully clichéd, the basic set up modelled closely and obviously on Jane Eyre. Harriet can seem a bit uptight and priggish like Eyre is sometimes accused of being, though mostly the book seems to just want to make her miserable. She is forever making mistakes or being reprimanded and rushing off to her bedroom in floods of tears.
I found my voice, “But, I can’t believe she’s- she’s not- no I just can’t believe she’s insane.”
I kept asking myself, just who was this book aimed at? The endless self-recrimination and the emotional peaks and troughs leading inevitably to mental trauma and breakdown is probably a pattern that belongs to a certain type of romantic fiction – but this is well out of my sphere of experience, and I can’t say that I’ll be looking for any more (though you could argue Wuthering Heights fulfills this criteria, so note to self: beware of generalisations). Harriet Godden, while apparently a poetry lover, has a small mind and a limited vocabulary and for a woman in her late twenties seems to have literally fallen out of a tree and into the real world, something that is constantly remarked upon but which never leads to any self-knowledge or improvement that I could fathom.
The truth is that nobody really cares for her except a flaky girlfriend back in London and it’s hard for us to care either. The story does get interesting when she decides that she is going to bump off Liane after she tries to run off to Ireland for the umpteenth time which made me think we might be heading into Margot Bennett / Shelley Smith territory – but no, there are no big character twists in store and by the time a dead body does turn up, all our reservoir of sympathy is dried up. The journey to ‘Talla’ in fairness is handled very well as is the car crash sequence but none the less the final effect is remarkably flat. This book left this reader more than a little disturbed as to why Lindop created a narrator that is set up to fail over and over again, leading to a great big crashing disappointment at the end – truly, what was the point of all that? However, the movie version is, quite literally, another story …
The book was greatly altered in its transposition to the screen, not least to accommodate star Susan Hayward’s tough and brassy persona and the fact that she was nearly 20 years older than the naive protagonist of the book. For the most part however the changes were entirely beneficial and this is one of those examples where the film is a lot more entertaining than the original novel. The film starts with a brand new opening section in which the female protagonist, now a doctor names Christine, arrives in a tower block to tend to a dying friend and gives him an injection that finally ends his suffering. She is arrested for mercy killing and prosecuted in somewhat hysterical fashion by Stephen Dane (Peter Finch). She ends up spending a year and a half in jail and is struck off the medical register. John Mortimer, barrister and writer, was hired to work on the script and one would assume he had something to do with this embellishment, and its equivalent concluding section that bookends the film and which has no equivalent in the book. Now going by the name of Harriet, she has several setbacks in trying to find work before finding a mysterious benefactor – who turns out to be Dane! It turns out that he has a sick wife who he wants her look after. She of course refuses but eventually he wins her over with the offer of a second chance.
This central section is the closest to the novel as Liane is introduced as a fairly similar character to the one in the book, though here she is much more obviously unbalanced – in fact she is diagnosed as being schizophrenic and is much more wayward, probably having an affair with stable hand played by Kieron Moore (a new character). Liane is played with a heavy hand by Australian actress Diane Cilento, who rather fails in her attempt at an Irish accent sadly. Eventually, as in the book, the two women head off to find her old home back in a small town in Ireland (here renamed ‘Caragh’ presumably because ‘Talla’ sounded too much like ‘Tara’ from MGM’s blockbuster, Gone with the Wind), there is a death that seems to remarkably close to the one that saw Christine prosecuted earlier. Was she being set up the whole time?
With some attractive and unusual location shooting in Liverpool as well as Crookhaven in West Cork, Ireland, the film always looks good and benefits from the steady hand of cinematographer Harry Waxman and director Robert Stevens, here making one of his few excursions onto the big screen. He is much better known for his sterling work for Alfred Hitchcock Presents (he was by far the most prolific director on that show) and the first two episodes of The Twilight Zone, including what remains my favourite one of all, ‘Walking Distance.’ There is plenty of creative camerawork on display here (including a wonderful tracking shot looking down at the streets of Liverpool) and the two main leads are pretty understated, though Cyril Cusack mops the floor with them, as he was wont to do on such occasions.
(For a detailed look at the movie and its visual aspects in particular, I recommend you visit Noirish, the fine website by John Grant, author of A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir: The Essential Reference Guide). Cilento,while a fine actress, is miscast here and hampered by the duff accent, which does hurt the film somewhat, not to mention that the character on screen is so lacking in the ethereal charm that at least in the book she was meant to possess. Not a great movie, but well made and engaging with a nice final twist at the end to bring the story full circle. Certainly much more satisfying than the original novel.
DVD Availability: This film is available as a Manufactured on Demand (MOD) release from Warner Archive but as a pressed disc elsewhere, though seemingly using the same very good anamorphic transfer. For my review I used the one released in Italy which is bilingual and which looks pretty darn good throughout with just a few scratches here and there.
Director: Robert Stevens
Producer: Anatole de Grunwald
Screenplay: Karl Tunberg (and John Mortimer, uncredited)
Cinematography: Harry Waxman
Art Direction: Sean Kenny
Music: Ron Goodwin
Cast: Susan Hayward, Peter Finch, Diane Cilento, Cyril Cusack, Kieron Moore, Athene Seyler, J.G. Devlin, Laurence Naismith, Brenda de Banzie
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ‘out of my comfort zone’ category: