Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #12: Dragonwyck

US, 1946. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Starring Gene Tierney, Vincent Price, Walter Huston, Jessica Tandy.

Vincent Price again, and just as in The Baron of Arizona he can't get lowly farmers to accept his ownership of their land! Only this time he came by the land by birth, rather than massive forgery and deceit. It's New York state, in the 1840s. He and his wife welcome distant relation and pretty young thing Gene Tierney into their massive mansion and estate, ostensibly to be a companion to their lonely 8 year old daughter, who they don't give a rat's ass about. The mansion is said to be haunted by the ghost of a woman wronged by one of Price's ancestors. His peculiar wife gets a head cold that leads to something much, much worse. The farmers are beginning to rebel against him. And no one can figure out what he gets up to when he disappears into the tower for days on end...

Based on a popular book of its day, the film was to be directed by Ernst Lubitsch, but when he fell ill screenwriter Mankiewicz made his directorial debut instead. The sure hand that guided classics like A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve is not apparent at this early stage. The entire production yearns to be another Rebecca, with Tierney the young woman of "low birth" who feels out of her league at the opulent but threatening mansion of her mysterious suitor. Still, there are nice touches throughout, and the performances are uniformly fine, especially Price, who seems to be laying the groundwork for his seminal role in Corman's Fall of the House of Usher.

The major problem comes down to the source material just not being as compelling as something like Rebecca. Chunks also seem to have been pruned from the film pre-release with little regard for the narrative flow. Thus, Price's daughter disappears entirely half-way through (the climax seems to suggest she died, but in the source novel she has gone off to live with a relation) and events jarringly follow others with no sense of the time elapsed between them. Price's early comments seem to suggest a mansion teeming with servants, and the building seems massive in a distant model shot but we never get a sense of anything aside from a few rooms with a few steps' distance of each other populated strictly by the principals and three servants. I don't demand lavish production values, but a director in control of their material can suggest spaces and things offscreen without ever showing them; that doesn't happen here.

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