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The Forgotten: Sister Act

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Charles Vidor, no relation to the more celebrated King, made Gilda, ensured himself a place in the film history books with a slick and thematically fascinating noir which dazzles from the moment Glenn Ford throws a pair of outsized dice in the opening shot. Following the trail of celluloid crumbs through Vidor's filmography, however, leads to more disappointments than triumphs. A contract director at Columbia, Vidor the Lesser made musicals and melodramas ranging from the mediocre to the intermittently great. A true survivor, he weathered the McCarthy era despite his wife, actress Karen Morley, being blacklisted for left-wing activities he had encouraged, and despite the fact that he himself had been an actual communist revolutionary in his native Hungary. His career even survived a lawsuit against Columbia boss Harry Cohn (Vidor was distressed by the studio supremo's potty mouth), and he died midway through directing Dirk Bograde as Liszt in Song Without End.

The short film The Bridge, made in 1929, utilizing the full range of silent movie expression, is enough to convince us that Gilda was no one-shot. Adapting Ambrose Bierce's famous short story An Incident At Owl Creek Bridge, Vidor pulls out all the stops, sets fire to them, and warms his hands. As the protagonist stands on the bridge's edge, a noose around his neck, about to be executed for spying, the drummer beats an anticipatory roll. Vidor double-exposes the drumsticks striking the taut skin with a closeup of the prisoner's chest, encouraging us to not only hear but feel his heart frenetically pounding out its final beats.

And in 1941, five years before Gilda, the stars also aligned favorably, when Vidor was handed a theatrical melodrama with the rather deadening title of Ladies in Retirement.

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Reginald Denham's play was a machine-tooled suspenser with some interesting moral ambiguities and fluctuations of sympathy. A housekeeper (Ida Lupino) working for a retired music hall star (Isobel Elsom) manages to trick the latter into accepting her two mentally awry sisters as houseguests. When the employer, driven to distraction by the demented visitors, demands that they leave, Lupino reveals her obsessive family feeling by murdering her. With Elsom stowed under a pile of coal (alongside Mrs. Crippen?), Lupino falls prey to a blackmailing nephew, Louis Hayward, and the suspicions of curious neighbours...

The setting is both theatrically contained and cinematically suggestive: the old dark house on the moors, a dreamily unreal concoction of dry ice and backdrops. Would fresh-air locations have dispelled the pervasive air of artifice? More likely they'd have exposed the unreality of everything else. It's a horror movie fantasy land, which is a help, given the film's quaint view of mental illness.

As played by Elsa Lanchester (distracted but simultaneously intense) and Edith Barrett (wide-spaced eyes apparently on the point of breaking through her temples and bouncing across the moorland like great luminous weather balloons), the weird sisters are more like difficult children than victims of mental illness. Their condition is a plot contrivance rather than a disease. That doesn't stop them being convincing as characters, though—their combination of stubbornness, innocence, knowing malice and selfishness strikes a note of truth. Their self-centered-ness is a prison that keeps them from engaging sanely with other people, they are so in thrall to their obsessions (Elsa will collect her firewood) that they simply can't spare the mental effort to deal with common humanity's peculiar concerns.

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While their isolated distraction is similar, each sister comes with her own set of quirks and her own performance style. Barrett grins wide and chatters constantly, while Lanchester broods and frowns as if peering through an obscuring clouds while dealing with the effects of a sharp blow to the back of the head. They make a brilliant psychiatric double act.

With the sisters providing a constant source of unconscious danger - they mean no harm but are risky allies to enlist in any criminal undertaking—Lupino has her hands full, but "charming rogue" (amoral swine) Louis Hayward, as nephew Albert Feather, threatens to overwhelm her utterly. The real-life Mr. Lupino, Hayward was a native South African with a flair for vocal tricks (playing twins, one good, one evil, Hayward surprised director James Whale by playing one characterisation an octave higher than the other). Here he smoothly imitates Lupino's quirky cockney accent (she'd departed England as a teenager and her voice had undergone an idiosyncratic mutation akin to Cary Grant's). The result isn't exactly realistic, but it's consistent. The film is so hermetically sealed in its own strange theatrical universe that such tricks are completely appropriate, as with the ludicrous Groundskeeper Willie accents everyone sports in Welles's Macbeth. Wayward Hayward's body language is as relaxed and confident as any swashbuckling hero, his smile no more predatory than the average alligator's.

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At the centre of the maelstrom of scene-stealing, plotting and blundering is Ida herself, revealing a steelier form of obsession than that afflicting her siblings. Underplaying the mania helps here, so there's none of the broiling hysteria of her mad turn in Walsh's They Drive By Night ("The doors! The doors!"). Her hair, a wide disc like the seat of a stool, flares out from her bulging wall of forehead, making her head look like a dreidel, big at the top and small at the bottom, with a tiny chin you could spin the whole thing on. The giant, expressive, shiny eyes (all the sisters have spectacular eyes, but none are remotely alike) carry galaxies of emotion, so Lupino's underacting comes across as underacting on a massive scale. It's over-the-top subtlety.

Although far from the moral centre, she's our only beacon of sympathy. Unsuspecting maid Evelyn Keyes is too simpleminded to serve as a figure of identification, although I guess that's what they told the censors (and yes, there was a time when Keyes could command credibility as a virginal naif).

While no immortal classic, Ladies in Retirement (ugh! that title!) is an inventive and exciting piece of genre fluff, with an unsettling aftertaste.

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

Haven’t seen this one in years but saw it a lot on TV back in the 50’s when I was a wee aesthete. That tree is right out of Murnau’s “Faust.” Delicately creepy this is Ida’s movie, though Hayward is of course excellent. He really gets to show his stuff in Ulmer’s “Ruthless” and Lang’s “House By the River.”
Murnau by way of Caspar David Friedrich, yes. The design department also whips up a title sequence with credits printed on signposts in the moors. Hayward impressed me in Clair’s And Then There Were None — his character, actually the hero, is introduced as a mass murderer, and we don’t learn he’s innocent for an hour. Louis seem, if anything, happier playing his when we think he’s guilty! The IMDb bio of him is fascinating — I never realised he was cut out of The Magnificent Ambersons, or involved with Noel Coward!
That’s funny, I was just watching Vidor’s Our Daily Bread and thought Karen Morley was the most amazing thing about it. I wondered, what happened to her?
A wonderful column as always. I haven’t even seen any of Vidor’s films. It’s been a while since I indulged in noir. There seems to be something here….

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