As well it might!
US / 104 minutes / bw / William Conrad Productions, Warner Bros.–First National Dir & Pr: William Conrad Scr: John Mantley Story: John Meredyth Lucas Cine: Sam Leavitt Cast: Troy Donahue, Joey Heatherton, Barry Sullivan, Nicolas Coster, Jeanette Nolan, Russell Thorson, Jean Paul King, Ben Wright, Shirley Mitchell, Howard McNear, Howard Wendell, John Holland, John McCook, Linda Meiklejohn.
Julie Merriday (Heatherton), headstrong daughter of the richest and most powerful man in the area, is speeding along the road one day with boyfriend Harry Lindsay (Coster) when she nearly kills motorcyclist Ben Gunther (Donahue). After being pulled out of the ditch, Ben recognizes her as Barbara, his long-lost love—really long-lost, because Barbara Merriday died a century ago giving birth to the child ancestral to the current Merriday brood.
Julie’s father Julian (Sullivan) is brutally possessive and controlling. At first he welcomes the idea that Harry, whom he clearly regards as a bit of a milksop, should face some competition for Julie’s affections from the more physically commanding Ben. Then, when it looks as if Ben might be getting somewhere with Julie, Julian’s attitude swivels to one of profound hostility: Ben is an interloper, a drifter, a ne’er-do-well, and should clear out of Julie’s life so she can marry someone nice and respectable . . . like, well, Harry.
Joey Heatherton as Julie Merriday.
There’s also the odd matter of Ben “recognizing” Julie—or Barbara. He first explains to her what’s going on while chatting with her as she supposedly redecorates the old family cliffside abode, Spindrift. (In reality she just sort waves the odd paintbrush vaguely in the “girly” manner that was doubtless at the time thought cute. Oh, and waggles her tight-clad rear end at the camera as she dances to music from the radio. For some reason the director thought the rear end was important.)
Troy Donahue as Ben Gunther.
Putting together what Ben has told her with information gleaned from her Aunt Sarah (Nolan)—her father’s sister, the family historian and, whatever Julian might like to believe, the backbone of the family—Julie learns that Barbara, much to the fury of her father, Amos Merriday, fell in love with a mariner, Benjamin Gunther. By the time Amos got rid of the man by whatever dastardly means, Barbara was bearing his child. After her death, Amos raised the child as his own—despite Julian’s blueblood pretensions at the country club, Sarah gleefully points out to him, they’re all the descendants of a bastard.
Barry Sullivan as Julian Merriday and Jeanette Nolan as Aunt Sarah Merriday.
Ben gives Julie a locket that he says Barbara gave to him, back in their previous life, and that he has now retrieved from where the earlier Benjamin hid it, in the very cave where he and Barbara made love. Inside the locket is a miniature of Barbara, and the face is indubitably identical with Julie’s. Local antiques dealer Henry (McNear) and Aunt Sarah both evaluate the locket as genuine.
Howard McNear as local antiques expert Henry.
Julian’s hostility to Ben, by now implacable, is driving Julie into the man’s arms, as Sarah and almost-fiancé Harry can see clearly but of course Julian himself cannot. Harry, even though he’s a lawyer, has all along behaved with considerable decency toward Ben, despite making it plain he loves Julie:
Harry: “Well, I guess a man can’t put up NO TRESPASSING signs on property he doesn’t own, can he?”
Nicolas Coster as Harry Lindsay.
So, is Ben for real, genuinely a reincarnation of that earlier sailor, or is he a conman hoping to marry money, or is he an escaped lunatic who believes he’s a reincarnation? This is the dilemma confronting the Merridays.
Finally, on the night of the fiercest storm in a decade, Ben persuades Julie to run away with him. They put out to sea in his ketch, braving the winds and the waves. Sheriff Beaton (Thorson), who’s been investigating the mysterious death of Spindrift’s caretaker, Mario Silvera (uncredited—we only see him as a corpse), and has discovered who Ben really is and the danger he might represent, calls in every rescue officer he can but there’s little they can do until the elements abate . . .
Russell Thorson as Sheriff Beaton.
The character of Julie should be pivotal to the movie, and it almost destroys My Blood Runs Cold that this is not the case. Alas, Joey Heatherton seems more interested in being a sex kitten than in portraying Julie—with the result that Julie comes across less like the spoilt daughter of privilege, more like a sassy waitress out of a Brooklyn diner. (Another irritation is that Julie often seems magically to change her clothes and acquire a different professional hair-do in the moments between one scene and the next.)
Because what should have been its mainspring is broken by this egregious miscasting, the movie—which, given a fair wind, might have rivaled genre peers such as Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA (1940), which in many stylistic ways it resembles—is doomed to a curious mediocrity, and certainly to B-feature status.
Joey Heatherton as Julie Merriday with George the chauffeur (uncredited).
Which is not to say that everyone else doesn’t do their damnedest to fill the gaping chasm and make the movie as good as it can be. Leavitt’s cinematography is often quite gorgeous, especially during the storm scenes at sea, and director Conrad, better known for his TV work, makes superb use of the region around Dolphin Bay, California, where the movie was largely shot. There are some lovely touches, with memorable images including the slow revelation—to us before the cast become aware of it—of Silvera’s corpse, resting in the shallows beneath a quilt of seaweed.
Barry Sullivan gives the kind of first-rate performance you’d expect as the irascible father and stupidly ruthless businessman. Nicolas Coster is an actor with whose work I’m not familiar; on the strength of his performance here as the mild-mannered, affable gentleman with a core of steel, I’m minded to look out for more of his movies.
Jeanette Nolan almost steals the show as Aunt Sarah—there’s a moment when Harry jokes that he should think about going steady with her instead of Julie and, like so many of the best jokes, for a moment you accept it as serious. Noir aficionados may remember Nolan best from Fritz Lang’s The BIG HEAT (1953), where she played Bertha Duncan, widow of the corrupt cop whose suicide starts the whole thing off.
But the surprise among the acting laurels must surely be Troy Donahue, who manages to project just the right mixture of disingenuity and menace as the seemingly psychic suitor. He even manages to make lines such as this one seem credible:
“It’s futile to remind you that men are all the time discovering new things about time and the subconscious that we never believed possible.”
(You keep expecting him to raise the matter of quantum theory, because obviously reincarnation and the like are all very, er, quantum.) Donahue also has to cope with the peculiar seizures that Ben, for no apparent reason related to his medical condition, occasionally suffers; here again, because the actor has stacked up such good credit with us in the rest of his performance, we’re prepared to take these at face value. For a player who’s often glibly dismissed as a good-looking hunk but little else, Donahue really does very well here.
Another face of Julie (Joey Heatherton).
This movie saw the last screen role of Jean Paul King, who played (uncredited) Charles, the Merriday family butler. King died just a few months after the movie was released.
My Blood Runs Cold suffers from definite flaws—aside from anything else, the fact that its title misquotes Byron, an error repeated in the opening credits by the voiceover narration and in an onscreen depiction of the relevant stanza, is hardly the best of starts. Even so, it’s a movie that for the most part bears its longish running time well and keeps us involved throughout . . . so long as we can take our minds away from the misjudged performance at its core.