UK / 67 minutes / bw / Merton Park, Eros Dir: Michael McCarthy Pr: William H. Williams Scr: Vivian Milroy Story: Crow Hollow (1950) by Dorothy Eden Cine: Robert LaPresle Cast: Donald Houston, Natasha Parry, Pat Owens, Esma Cannon, Nora Nicholson, Susan Richmond, Meadows White, Melissa Stribling, Penelope Munday, Ewen Solon, Denis Webb, Georgie Henschel, Gordon Bell, Janet Barrow, Norman Claridge, Doris Yorke.
Within days of their meeting, Dr. Robert “Bob” Armour (Houston) has proposed to and been accepted by Ann (Parry), and they marry almost immediately. They plan to live at Crow Hollow, Bob’s ancestral pile somewhere in the Home Counties, with Bob’s three elderly aunts. First, though, the young couple go to visit an aged family friend of Bob’s, Mrs. Wilson (Barrow), who’s ailing in hospital. Briefly alone with Ann, the dying Mrs. Wilson beseeches the young woman: “Don’t let him take you to Crow Hollow!” It’s a moment of high drama that, alas, doesn’t quite mesh with the rest of the plot; luckily this is one of those points that doesn’t occur to you until later.
Ignoring the old woman’s warning—because otherwise there wouldn’t be a story—Bob and Ann go to Crow Hollow as planned. The place got its name because the valley in which the house stands used to be infested by crows, whose presence was regarded as bringing ill luck to the valley’s occupants. Then, about fifty years ago, the crows suddenly departed. It takes no genius to guess that, as the tale progresses, the crows will start returning . . .
Aunt Judith (Esma Cannon) welcomes Ann (Natasha Parry) and Bob (Donald Houston) to Crow Hollow.
Already embedded in Crow Hollow are the three aunts, sisters of Bob’s late father, all three of whom greet Ann in their different ways, though seeming friendly enough. Opal (Nicholson) is the committed housekeeper of the trio. Judith (Cannon) is a dedicated naturalist, thrilled over her most recent acquisition, a huge hairy poisonous spider from Australia; Crow Hollow’s gardener, Dexter (White), earns himself beer money from Judith through finding interesting specimens in the surrounds. Hester (Richmond) is more of a gardener, but her true obsession is with the concoction of therapeutic soups, which are inflicted upon any of the locals who’re foolish enough to fall ill. Those locals, of course, are also patients served by Bob’s medical practice; he proves a most assiduous young doctor, and Ann begins to wonder if he’s more married to his practice than he is to her.
Ann catches Willow (Pat Owens) in the act of trying on her clothes.
Also part of the household is the enigmatic Willow (Owens), who parades around in housemaid uniform and performs the usual functions you’d expect of a maid, yet seems far more a part of the family than this position would imply. Although apparently not very bright, she’s pretty, and she seems oddly possessive toward Bob—and perhaps covetous also of Ann’s status, almost as if she wanted to step into Ann’s shoes as Bob’s wife. The time that Ann catches Willow trying on her clothes is almost the last straw . . .
But Ann, becoming increasingly suspicious that someone’s out to get her and intermittently terrified that it might be Bob, has several almost-final straws still to go. There’s the night of a dress ball when, as Ann allows Willow to dress her hair with gardenias, Judith’s poisonous spider wriggles out of the bunch of flowers onto Ann’s shoulder. Later there’s the strychnine in her soup . . . and we know that Hester uses strychnine in the garden. But is the poison really strychnine? Could it instead be ground-up Amanita phalloides, a specimen of which Dexter recently brought to Judith, which specimen has mysteriously gone missing?
Oops! Where oh where did that great big hairy spider come from?
Despite her arachnidal encounter, Ann recovers herself sufficiently to go to that ball, and here she meets Diana Wilson (Stribling), daughter of the elderly woman who issued that dire warning at the outset. Bob and Diana have obviously been fond of each other for many years, and Diana’s even prettier than Willow. Could she represent yet another threat?
At the gala ball, Bob (Donald Houston) introduces Ann (Natasha Parry) to his old pal Diana Wilson (Melissa Stribling). Is she an old flame? Does she still flicker?
It’s Diana whom Ann bumps into on the platform of Gonshall station the day that she’s decided once and for all to flee from Crow Hollow for the relative safety of London and her old flatmate Cass (Munday), and it’s Diana who persuades Ann to give things one last try. After sneaking up to her bedroom to hide her suitcase, Ann discovers Willow there, stark dead at Ann’s dressing table, wearing a dress of Ann’s and stabbed in the back.
“Just drink up all your nice soup,” Opal (Nora Nicholson) tells the ailing Ann (Natasha Parry).
At last the cops are called, in the reassuring shape of Detective Inspector York (Webb) and Sergeant Jenkins (the estimable Solon), but they’re obviously less interested in Ann’s seemingly neurotic terrors than they are in the murder. The secret that’s been driving the plot will be uncovered, and the malevolent party exposed, only after it has been revealed who Willow actually was . . .
Ann (Natasha Parry) finds Willow (Pat Owens) dead at her dressing table.
Based on a Dorothy Eden novel, this movie suffers from a plot that seems more rickety every time you think about it (I haven’t read the novel, so I don’t know if this was inherited or if the scriptwriters “improved” things for the screen) but, even so, it’s highly watchable and tremendously entertaining. In large part this is due to Parry, the height of whose movie career this more or less was. With her clipped upper-crust accent and her apparent primness, she somehow manages to be the center of attention of every frame she’s in; she also succeeds in being, without any ostentation, extremely alluring—hard to understand how Bob’s able to drag himself off for all those consultations. Among the rest of the cast, there are good performances from Nicholson as Aunt Opal and perhaps especially—although it would have been an easier role to play, being more of a stereotype—Cannon as Aunt Judith. Stribling shines too.
Judith (Esma Cannon). Never cross an entomologist.
The only two males of any note in the cast are White, in the supporting role of the gardener, and Houston, as Bob. Houston plays his usual eminently pleasant but alas easily forgettable self; normally this would be a weakness but here it’s actually a strength, for two quite separate reasons. First, it conveys to us that Ann’s secret, self-declared antagonist is among all those womenfolk at and around Crow Hollow—Opal, Judith, Hester, Willow, Diana, and perhaps even Nurse Baxter (Henschel), whom Bob deputes to tend Ann as she recovers from the strychnine episode. And, second and seemingly in contradiction to the first, just because Bob is so self-effacing and seemingly decent through-and-through, it’s tempting throughout to wonder if he might be the murderous party; a frequent trope of the mystery novel, after all, is that it’s the least likely-seeming person wot dunnit.
Ironically, in another movie with a similar setup but in which it actually is the husband and his mistress who’re plotting to knock off the naive young bride—MIDNIGHT LACE (1960) with Rex Harrison and Doris Day—the conniving Other Woman is played by Natasha Parry. Parry also has a supporting role in a movie I covered earlier here on Noirish: Midnight Episode (1950).
A prize example, in short, of the 1950s UK gothic noir, and especially intriguing in that it’s essentially focused on its large female cast, the males being peripheral.
All’s well that ends well.