Noir Nook: Shadows in the Victorian Age
Western noir. British noir. Sci-fi noir. Neo-noir.
So many types of noir these days. And there’s a new one – new to me, at least: Gaslight noir.
I recently discovered this category of films on the Criterion Channel, where they were curated by film critic and historian Farran Nehme under the title, “Noir by Gaslight.” These films are set in the late 19th century, but they contain the tone, mood, and characteristics of the classic noir period of the 1940s and 1950s. The “Noir by Gaslight” collection includes several features with which I was already familiar – including Ladies in Retirement (1941), Gaslight (1944), and The Suspect (1944) – but thanks to the series, I discovered several new-to-me features. And of these, there are three that are not only first-rate, but just happen to be based on true stories (my favorite tango!): Blanche Fury (1948), So Evil My Love (1948), and Madeleine (1950). These three first-rate gaslight noirs are the focus of this month’s Noir Nook.
Blanche Fury (1948)
Blanche Fury is the only one of the three features that’s filmed in color – a blazing Technicolor unlike any I’ve seen before – but that doesn’t lessen the impact of this tale. It focuses on the title character (Valerie Hobson), a domestic servant whose meager existence turns around when she’s hired as the governess for her rich uncle’s granddaughter, Lavinia (Susanne Gibbs). Once installed on the Fury estate, Blanche attains the security she craves by marrying her weak-willed cousin, Laurence (Michael Gough). There’s no love involved in the union, however, and Blanche quickly becomes involved in a passionate affair with Philip Thorn (Stewart Granger), a groom on the property. The illegitimate son of the estate’s former owner, Thorn’s passion for Blanche is exceeded only by his desire to claim his rightful inheritance – no matter who has to die in order for him to do it.
I wasn’t certain at first whether I would like Blanche Fury – in fact, I wasn’t even sure I’d finish it. I think I was initially thrown off by the startling color (which included an odd, and not necessarily flattering, shade of lipstick on star Valerie Hobson), and it took me a while to get used to it. But once I did, I was able to appreciate the variety of characters, especially Blanche, who is one of the most fascinating, contradictory, and multifaceted femmes fatales that I’ve yet to encounter – she’s cantankerous with the older women she cared for, fiercely protective of Lavinia, dismissive and inflexible toward her husband, and with her lover . . . well, she’s many different women with him.
So Evil My Love (1950)
This feature stars Ann Todd as Olivia Harwood, a missionary’s widow who encounters con man and thief Mark Bellis (Ray Milland) when she nurses him through a bout of malaria on a ship from the West Indies to England. The straitlaced Olivia falls under Mark’s nefarious spell and under his guidance, she establishes herself as live-in companion to a wealthy, but unhappily married (and a bit unstable), childhood friend (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Once there, she becomes the sole source of Mark’s income by stealing stocks, bonds, and a variety of small valuables from her friend’s home, and even resorts to blackmail before a series of events brings the scheme to a deadly halt. (Speaking of deadly halt, So Evil My Love serves up an ending that literally left me with my mouth open. It’s one of my favorites in all of film noir.)
As with Blanche, I was intrigued by Olivia. When we first meet her, she comes across as a rather noble sort – on the ship from the West Indies, she initially refuses to nurse the passengers who’ve contracted malaria, but she then agrees to assist, almost against her own will – as if she couldn’t help being helpful. But with the release of her passion for Mark, we also see the unleashing of something else, something far more sinister – and something that wasn’t introduced by Mark but was part of her nature all along. She simply needed Mark’s unique brand of attention to unlock something that had been inside her all along.
Ann Todd also stars in the third of my favorite new-to-me gaslight noirs – hers is the title role in Madeleine, playing the eldest daughter of an upper-class Glasgow family, who is having a secret affair with a handsome but social-climbing shipping clerk, Emile L’Angelier (Ivan Desny). Madeleine is also being courted by William Minnoch (Norman Wooland), an upstanding citizen who meets the approval of her strict father (Leslie Banks), but when she decides to end her illicit dalliance with Emile, her lover refuses to return the many letters Madeleine has written over the years. Instead, he threatens to turn them over to her father if she doesn’t marry him. Unfortunately for Emile, Madeleine doesn’t react well to ultimatums.
Like Blanche and Olivia, her sisters under the crinolines, Madeleine is an interesting character. At first glance, one would never guess that she could be so devious and duplicitous – nor so passionate and carefree. But she was no fool, no ingénue led astray by her desires. Once she began to appreciate the benefits associated with the socially suitable Minnoch, her passion for Emile started to cool – she’d sowed her wild oats and was now ready to move on to greener, more respectable pastures. This feature, directed by Todd’s then-husband David Lean, serves up a decidedly ambiguous ending, but it’s one that I found to be both appropriate and satisfying.
If you’re not familiar with gaslight noirs, do yourself a favor and seek out this riveting collection of films. In addition to the Criterion Channel, many can be found streaming for free on YouTube, Tubi, Plex, or the Roku Channel. Trust me – you’ll have a blast finding out that shadows are just as ominous and unforgiving in the Victorian Age as the ones you see in the 20th century.
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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