Beware of stormy weather!
US / 96 minutes / bw / Universal–International Dir & Pr: Zoltan Korda Scr: Aldous Huxley Story: “The Gioconda Smile” (1921 in Mortal Coils) by Aldous Huxley Cine: Russell Metty Cast: Charles Boyer, Ann Blyth, Jessica Tandy, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Mildred Natwick, Cecil Humphreys, Hugh French, Rachel Kempson, Valerie Cardew, Carl Harbord, John Williams, Leland Hodgson, Ola Lorraine, Harry Cording.
Perhaps surprisingly, bearing in mind the authorship of its screenplay—and bearing in mind its dialogue’s predilection for wandering off into little philosophical digressions—this is a movie where it’s probably best to leave one’s brain at the door. Experienced in the moment, so to speak, it’s hugely impressive, with some sterling performances, dramatic visuals and moments of great emotional power, all underscored (if you’ll pardon the pun) by a typically tidal orchestral soundtrack by Miklos Rosza. Yet, under the most perfunctory analysis, parts of it don’t really make sense and/or are quite clumsy.
Ann Blyth as Doris Mead.
There’s a strong suspicion at large that bon vivant and art connoisseur Henry Maurier (Boyer) married his wife Emily (Kempson) solely for her fortune. It’s a suspicion that the man’s own behavior doesn’t support, even though it appears he has a habit of pursuing other women and is currently enmeshed in a longstanding affair with Doris Mead (Blyth), a mere slip of a girl who—she’s just 18—could easily be his daughter, or even granddaughter.
Charles Boyer as Henry Maurier.
The one woman at whom he seems never to have made a pass is, perhaps surprisingly, Janet Spence (Tandy), whom Henry took under his wing when she was a young woman not long returned from India with her aged, disabled father, the General (Humphreys). Henry’s obviously very fond of Janet in a sibling fashion; what he doesn’t realize is that she has conceived a mighty love for him.
Rachel Kempson as Emily Maurier.
Emily, his wife, has for some time now been largely bedridden with a weakness of the heart. Encouraged by her man-hating nurse, Caroline Braddock (Natwick), Emily has grown to loathe her husband, believing only the worst of him—in fact, it’s through Nurse Braddock’s testimony alone that we’re led to regard Henry as a habitual philanderer. The affair with Doris is real enough, though . . . but, as we soon find out, understandable. Here’s Emily on the subject of her husband:
Emily: “Shall I tell you the only reason why I’m still alive? Because Henry would be so happy if I died.”
One day Henry discovers Emily in the process of handing a check for £400 to her constantly scrounging brother Robert Lester (French). Angrily, Henry rips up the check—an act that will soon redound upon him when Robert catches him at a local hostelry with the fair Doris and initiates some blackmail.
Jessica Tandy as Janet Spence.
(There are, by the way, fairly persistent claims around the intertubes in synopses of A Woman’s Vengeance that Doris is Robert’s mistress, not Henry’s. I’ve no idea where this error might have originated, but I’d suspect AllMovie, whose synopses are full of such howlers.)
Hugh French as Robert Lester.
One day, while Henry is out with Doris (and being blackmailed by Robert), Emily ups and dies—of the long-anticipated heart attack, according to elderly family physician Dr. James Libbard (Hardwicke). Henry and Libbard suspect the immediate trigger might have been the redcurrants that Emily, encouraged by Nurse Braddock, ate at lunch. Janet, the only person whom Libbard could find to be with her friend Emily at the end, recounts that the death was a nightmarish one, and is clearly much disturbed over having witnessed it.
Mildred Natwick as Nurse Caroline Braddock.
Henry is clearly very upset too. However rocky his relationship might have been with his wife, it becomes obvious he was once deeply in love with her and still, despite all her venomous waspishness, retained a strong affection for her. Even so, not too many weeks have passed before he goes off on a holiday to Cornwall with Doris and, while there, impulsively marries her.
It’s on his brief return to the house to pick up a few items en route to the Continent that one of the movie’s three truly marvelous set-pieces takes place. There’s a storm raging outside and the electricity flickers as Henry locates the things he wants. Suddenly Janet arrives through the pounding rain and, with the storm-battered windows as her backdrop, explains to Henry that she adores the passion of tempestuous weather—passions and tempests that, we begin to understand, she doesn’t otherwise experience. Even so, she tells Henry, she’s madly in love with him, and has been for years. When he lets her down gently with the news that he and Doris are now married, Janet passes her profession of love off as just a clumsy joke.
The raging storm brings forth the passion that Janet (Jessica Tandy) usually hides so well.
The newlyweds’ European honeymoon is truncated. Nurse Braddock has taken her suspicion that Emily was poisoned to the cops, the body has been exhumed and, sure enough, there’s arsenic in it—arsenic from the weedkiller that Henry had bought the very day of Emily’s demise!
It’s not long before Henry finds himself in the condemned cell at Wandsworth Prison . . .
I mentioned that there are three tremendous set-pieces in the movie. The second occurs when Janet visits Henry in Wandsworth and, for some reason addressing him in his condemned cell via a downward-sloping chute from the corridor outside, cold-bloodedly confesses to him (this is no spoiler, because we’ve known it from early on) that she was the one who poisoned Emily, in the misplaced belief that Henry’s affection for her was romantic love, and that in Emily’s absence he’d marry her. (Not that Janet has much time for the physical aspects of romantic love, it should be understood; several times during the movie she makes this clear.)
Janet (Jessica Tandy) visits Henry as he waits in the condemned cell.
The atmospherics of the scene are beautifully handled; visually speaking, the use of the chute was a masterstroke, so that, as Henry stares upward at Janet’s cold face, framed in a barred window, he might as well be addressing a minion of Big Brother. (I found myself reminded, too, for some reason of the sequence in Heaven at the end of the 1957 Otto Preminger movie Saint Joan, based on Shaw’s play and starring Jean Seberg.) At the same time, there’s an implausibility built into the scene. Mere feet away from where Henry is standing, the two guards with whom he has been playing cards are still sitting at the table, and could surely overhear Janet’s confession of guilt. Yet they betray no awareness whatsoever of what’s going on. It seems almost as if director Korda chose briefly to adopt a non-Western mode of narrative, in which characters can step outside the constraints of their physical circumstances to converse with each other.
Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Dr. James Libbard.
The third great set-piece occurs between Janet and Dr. Libbard during the night that they’re sitting up together awaiting the news of Henry’s execution. Libbard has for some time been aware that Janet is the real murderer, but for unstated reasons of his own (a further example of the plot not really making sense) has been concerned less about this than about her mental health. Ever since Henry’s conviction she’s been suffering from extreme insomnia, and it’s obvious to us (and to Libbard) that she’s disintegrating under the stress of her betrayal of the man she loved. But she’s an unwilling patient:
Janet: “No thanks. I don’t want to go to a psychiatrist.”
Libbard: “But you want to get well, don’t you?”
Janet: “I’m not ill! Not that way. And I know you. You’re going to tell them I’m mad, and they’re going to lock me up and torture me until I say things. It’s a plot!! Everyone’s plotting against me!!!”
The scene from which that piece of dialogue is extracted comes from slightly earlier in the movie, and is an example of the screenplay’s occasional clumsiness. We’ve become increasingly aware of Janet’s growing psychological fragility; we really don’t need an eruption of the “They all think I’m mad, mad, MADDDDD, I tell you!” variety.
Even so, by the time of the final evening shared by her and the doctor, things have settled down a bit. With great skill Tandy and Hardwicke show that their characters each knows what the other is thinking: the doctor is certain of Janet’s guilt, Janet is fully cognizant of his certainty. At one point she perhaps tries—the matter’s left open—to lace the doctor’s scotch with poison; when he brushes the glass to the floor and insists on being the one to pour his refill, it’s clear on Janet’s face that she knows exactly why his “accident” occurred.
The tension builds up inexorably, the ticking of the clock a constant, menacing backdrop. Again the visuals and choreography are quite masterful as the two actors dance around the truth they both share. Will Janet confess openly to the doctor? Will the doctor act on his own initiative to halt the judicial murder that’s only minutes away? Or will time run out before there remains any possibility of reprieve?
As the time for the execution approaches, Dr. Libbard (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) tries to coax a confession from Janet (Jessica Tandy).
The fact that the movie is really all about Janet—that Boyer as Henry and Blyth as Doris are really in only supporting roles—is something that creeps up on us without our being fully aware of it until fairly late on. Korda could hardly have found a better actress to portray the neurotic, cold and yet strangely appealing murderess than Tandy, with whom initially a great deal of our sympathy lies; it’s another triumph of the movie’s emotional complexity that much of this sympathy persists even after we’ve become aware that Janet has poisoned her (supposedly) good friend Emily. In many ways she’s right, you see: give or take their differing attitudes to physical intimacy, she and Henry really are made for each other. Doris is far from the shallow floozy that Janet considers her to be, and clearly does genuinely love her new, much older husband; but we sense she’ll always be in his mind the promoted mistress rather than the spiritual companion he’s been seeking.
Cecil Humphreys as General Spence.
Sometime after the release of A Woman’s Vengeance Huxley adapted his screenplay—which differs quite a deal from the original short story—as a stage play, The Gioconda Smile (1950). This in turn has been adapted numerous times for the screen, usually for TV.