UK / 71 minutes / bw / British National, Anglo–American Dir & Scr: Vernon Sewell Pr: Louis H. Jackson Story: L’Angoisse (n.d. play) by Pierre Mills and C. Vylars Cine: Günther Krampf Cast: Derrick De Marney, Joan Greenwood, Frederick Valk, Joan Seton, Beresford Egan, Lilly Kann, Martin Miller, Valentine Dyall, Anthony Hawtrey, Bruce Winston, Kempinski, Espinosa, Margaret Clarke, Rachel Brodbrar, Sybille Binder.
The second of no fewer than four versions that Sewell made of a Grand Guignol play whose title translates as The Anguish. His other three adaptations—all of which differ quite a lot—were The Medium (1934), Ghost Ship (1952) and House of Mystery (1961). All are supernatural thrillers; this one has in addition many aspects reminiscent of historical noir. There’s a sort of quotation of the movie’s premise in Claude Chabrol’s much later POULET AU VINAIGRE (1984; vt Cop au Vin).
Paris, the Left Bank, 1893. Sculptor Charles Garrie (De Marney, who also served as Associate Director) has moved into the old studio of his erstwhile rival Anton Minetti (Egan) and, for enigmatic reasons, has insisted that everything be left exactly as it is—to the annoyance of his model and girlfriend Lucille Lindbeck (Seton). The concierge, Maria (Kann), barely dare step inside the place, for time and again she hears the pipe organ playing when there’s no one there but herself. (What’s an artist’s studio without a pipe organ, after all?) Although Charles publicly pooh-poohs Maria’s accounts, he too has had spooky experiences in the studio, such as the lamp that inexplicably flickers and dies every evening at 11pm.
Tina (Joan Greenwood) was nervous in her marriage in her marriage to Minetti.
Minetti died after his paranoia had driven him completely insane. Not long before, his wife Christine “Tina” (Greenwood) disappeared in mysterious circumstances, and so the cops have been keeping an eye on the situation—although getting nowhere. Now the Préfet de Police (Dyall, touchingly listed in the credits as playing the Préfecture de Police) calls in his old friend Dr. Ivan Krasner (Valk), a renowned criminologist whose protégée Lucille happens to have been and who also knows Charles well. Reluctantly, Krasner agrees to help.
Charles (Derrick De Marney).
Charles tells Krasner the whole of the backstory to his obsession with the studio. In traditional style, we see this backstory in the form of flashbacks.
An orphan, Tina Renoir was a young ballet dancer when Minetti first hired her as a model, two days a week, with the permission of the ballet’s Madame (Clarke). A few weeks later Tina collapsed during rehearsal, and was diagnosed as having heart strain, a condition that effectively spelled the end of her dancing career. As Minetti observed, “You have no parents, have you? No money, either. Paris offers cold comfort to penniless prudes.” He offered her marriage as a sort of business deal, a bargain that would be good for both of them.
Minetti (Beresford Egan) and Madame (Margaret Clarke) decide that Tina would make an ideal model for him.
At the wedding party, Charles and the new bride met for the first time and fell immediately head over heels for each other. Soon they were meeting whenever they could, although seemingly their love remained unconsummated.
On the way to a fancy-dress party on the Right Bank one night, however, they decided to run away together. At that party, hosted by Jo-Jo (Winston, in a very Sydney Greenstreet mode), Charles first encountered Lucille, although he barely registered her. More significantly, a sinister hooded figure turned up and stared meaningfully at the dallying Tina and Charles. Since the figure was preternaturally tall and Minetti was likewise (seemingly about 50% taller than the diminutive Greenwood!), it was fairly obvious what was going down—and, indeed, by the time Tina got home she found that Minetti had smashed all his statues of her and was working instead on sculpting a gross caricature of her in her fancy dress.
The mysterious figure at the Masque.
The very night that Tina and Charles were to meet at the Gare du Nord railway station to flee, she disappeared.
The police were initially loth to act, but eventually they too became concerned. And then one day Minetti went completely berserk and murdered a woman whom everyone believed was Tina but whom Charles discovered, on visiting the morgue, was actually Minetti’s rural mistress (Brodbrar).
Tina has never reappeared. It’s Charles’s belief that perhaps she lost her memory and has been wandering the countryside. He bought Minetti’s studio and kept everything the way it was in hopes she might return one day and, if she did so, feel at home in her surroundings. And yet he still feels her presence so strongly here, and there are all those spooky goings-on.
Krasner thinks he has the answer: conduct a phony séance, although he doesn’t tell Charles about the “phony” part. Famous spirit medium Mme. Cordova (Binder) is booked for the job, and . . .
Charles (Derrick de Marney) demonstrates the way the studio’s lamp flickers spookily . . . or is it just impurities in the oil?
We’ve been alerted early on to the fact that this ostensibly noirish tale might end up in spooky territory. When Lucille with uncharacteristic waspishness tells concierge Maria she could usefully do a bit of dusting around the studio, Maria responds with a monologue full of foreboding (ellipses sic):
“There’s the ordinary dust . . . and then there’s the other sort . . . which settles on the soul . . . evil thoughts . . . and evil deeds. This studio has had more than its share.”
To which the only possible response is: oo-ee-oo-ee-ooo. Soon afterward, Charles and Krasner break from their conversation to discover that Lucille has fallen into a trance; either she’s spiritually sensitive or it was an extremely boring conversation.
While there are places where it feels as if things have been padded out a little (do those protracted scenes at the ballet school really serve any purpose? does the “duel” at Jo-Jo’s wild ‘n’ wacky bohemian party advance the plot at all?), and even though the direction and cinematography are no more than journeyman, this is a surprisingly enjoyable movie. Egan is ludicrously over-the-top as Minetti and Kann likewise as Maria, but that’s really all part of the charm. De Marney’s good in a role where he could equally well have been awful, but the real acting joys come from Valk as the dumpy criminologist—there’s a feeling that Valk might have made a very good Jules Maigret—and Seton as Lucille. Also worth noting is Miller’s supporting cameo as a garrulous morgue attendant who’s dismayed by his inexplicable failure ever to find someone who’ll share his wine and cheese in his place of employment.
Frederick Valk delivers a fine turn as Krasner, the criminologist trying to make sense of it all.
On Amazon.com: Latin Quarter/Frenzy