Thursday, September 19, 2013

THE UNINVITED: Blu-ray (Paramount 1944) Criterion Home Video

Despite some intriguing touches and the occasional moody fright, Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited (1944) is a fairly uninspired thriller; its leitmotif of ‘do you think the dead come back to observe the living?’ seeming old hat even by the mid-1940s.  Hitchcock had plumed the well superbly with the Oscar-winning Rebecca (1940), an infinitely more atmospheric excursion into the dark old house premised potboiler with a mysterious past. On this occasion, director Lewis Allen utterly fails to delve beyond the beginnings of a pseudo-Gothic horror replete with stock clichés: animals that can sense foreboding before their human counterparts, unexplained phenomena occurring nightly, flickering candles in the front hall and a young woman compelled by unearthly desire to destroy herself. We’ve seen all this before, and done to better effect elsewhere than in The Uninvited.
Dodie Smith/Frank Partos' screenplay doesn’t do all that much with Dorothy Macardle’s novel, Uneasy Freehold, except to sporadically shake, then lightly stir the melange of evil spirits on the loose. Just when you think the movie’s about to get good – or at least scary - as in the sequence where Roderick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) and his sister, Pamela (Ruth Hussey) discover a chill in the air of the artist’s atelier - but fail to notice the fresh bouquet of flowers introduced into the room withering to rot before their very eyes - the screenplay pulls back from the supernatural to concentrate, rather badly, on a some light comedy and heavy-handed melodrama awkwardly blended, though never entirely fleshed out.

The Uninvited plays very much like the screwball that ran away with the 'who done it?' The cast spend more time perplexedly skulking about the nearby town than sleuthing with any degree of certainty within the haunted Winwood estate, supposedly at the crux of a spurious familial legacy. Director Lewis gets his spirits confused, and frequently confounds his audience with some intriguing foreshadowing that regrettably comes to not shortly thereafter; more concerned with maintaining the brooding atmosphere than cohesively linking his moments into a chronologically functioning narrative. Periodically taking the action out of Winwood diverts the audience’s sense of anticipation. And Winwood is hardly as spooky in its nightly haunts as one might expect.
The chief flaw with The Uninvited is two-fold; first, at how unremarkable its surroundings remain throughout the story, and second, by how long it takes to get the central narrative off the ground. Hitchcock, as example, was a master at knowing when to introduce the more sinister elements into his seemingly congenial ‘normal’ world; plying every moment leading up to that pivot with his exceptional sense of timing and pace. Director Allen seems to lack such focus. There are too many parallels between Hitchcock’s Rebecca and The Uninvited to go into at any great length in this review. But a few bear closer inspection. Both films, as example, begin with a voice-over narration, The Uninvited’s spoken with a queer tedium by Ray Milland, dropping hints about the supernatural occurrences at Winwood House; appropriately situated on a craggy moor near Cornwall.
For the Fitzgeralds, sharing a cramped flat in London, the estate – with its vast windswept property overlooking a rather turgid sea and barren landscape – has its definite allure. Rick’s a failed music critic; Pamela, the spinster ‘do nothing’ sibling who fancies herself mistress of a grand country house. Curiously enough, the movie never quite explains how Rick’s salary as a magazine writer is able to pay for the sale of the property – even at its incredibly reduced price – or, in fact, where all the Fitzgerald’s lavish furnishings that eventually fill up Winwood’s expansive rooms were being stored beforehand: certainly not in their congested London flat!
After the Fitzgerald’s dog, Bobby, runs astray through one of Winwood’s open windows in pursuit of a squirrel, Rick and Pamela make chase through its vacant interiors, affording the audience a lay of the land, so to speak. It’s a curious introduction, not the least for its elementally failed ‘screwball’ model that belies the purpose of the rest of the story. In Rebecca, Hitchcock uses the estate of Manderly as a character, its rooms briefly visited at the start of the movie, to be revisited later on with heightened dramatic intensity; these interiors affected by lighting, cinematography and the seemingly natural progression of the story from melodrama into suspense. In The Uninvited we are given a Cook’s tour of rooms we will never see again. It’s a little bit like taking a house guest on a walking tour of a medieval castle, but then informing them they will be spending the rest of their vacation in the woodcutter’s cottage just down the road. And anyway, Winwood is no Manderly, its hollow interiors never harking to that mysterious past; the audience expected to intuitively feel and remember a history that doesn’t exist or rather, is never revealed to us until quite late in the third act.  Winwood is just a place, a series of walls and windows put up by Paramount’s art department to evoke…well…we’re not entirely sure.
Rick is bitten by the squirrel hiding under the kitchen stove. Bobby pursues the poor terrified creature to an open grate, the squirrel escaping up the flue.  Pamela decides to go exploring and quickly becomes enamored with Winwood, coaxing a very reluctant Rick to see things her way. The pair eventually arrives at the home of Commander Beech (Donald Crisp); a curmudgeonly recluse of means to whom the property currently belongs. Rick and Pamela first meet Beech’s granddaughter, Stella Meredith (Gail Russell) who emphatically insists Winwood is not for sale. But only moments later Beech declares that they can have it for a song. What’s wrong with the place? Oh, it’s haunted. Really? How exciting!  
Without much ado or haggling Beech sells Winwood to the Fitzgeralds, hinting that the previous tenant was driven out by curious sounds and superstitions; this brief history intriguing Pamela and Rick who take immediate possession of the house. But is Winwood possessed? At first, neither Rick nor Pamela thinks so. Pamela stays on to tidy up, encouraging Rick to return to London and settle accounts with the magazine; also, to send their belongings on ahead while Rick makes plans to bring over their Scottish housemaid, Lizzie Flynn (Barbara Everest). However, when Rick returns a week later with Lizzie and her cat, Pamela tells them that Bobby has run off. The house has no electricity so the interiors are all lit by flickering candlelight; a rather strained contrivance considering the movie is not taking place in 17th or even 18th century Europe but supposedly modern day England circa 1944. Everyone retires for the evening except Lizzie’s cat, rather vehemently refusing to go upstairs. Later that evening Rick hears a woman’s echoed sobbing and ventures beyond his bedroom with candelabra in hand. But he cannot pinpoint the location of the wailing. It seems to be coming from all around. Pamela confesses to Rick that she has heard this same mysterious crying every night since her stay at Winwood.
The next afternoon Rick confronts Commander Beech, who is as reticent as he remains haughty and elusive about explaining anything. Afterward, Rick meets Stella in town. In fact, she has been waiting for him. Stella apologizes for her behavior and Rick, sensing the sadness within, decides to intrude on her prearranged errands to take the girl out for a sail. It’s not much of a ‘cute meet’. Rick becomes sea sick, relying on Stella to sail them back into port. Still, she finds him attractive and he makes a gallant attempt to please by inviting her to Winwood for dinner. Beech admonishes Stella after learning she has accepted this invitation. He orders his adult granddaughter to her room. Although she momentarily complies, Stella makes it quite clear she will not remain a prisoner in his house and later defies Beech by returning to Winwood in a party dress for that dinner engagement. In the meantime, Beech telephones Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner), the proprietress of the Mary Meredith Asylum, with a cryptic message to meet.
Pamela deduces that Rick is smitten with Stella and encourages the romance. But the night’s festivities are interrupted by a strange fate. Having taken Stella to the artist’s atelier, newly converted into his musician’s loft complete with grand piano – and serenading her with the now iconic Victor Young composition, ‘Stella by Starlight’, Rick takes notice that the girl has suddenly drifted very far away from him in her thoughts. Without cause or warning, Stella darts from the room, down the stairs and out the front door. Rick chases after Stella and narrowly prevents her from hurling herself over the craggy cliff into the swirling ocean waters below.  Moments later, Lizzie’s screams force everyone back inside; Lizzie claiming to have witnessed an ominous fog creeping up the stairs toward the artist’s loft. Stella tells Pamela and Rick that her mother committed suicide on the cliff when she was only three and Rick elects to get to the bottom of things with Beech the next afternoon.
Beech is close-lipped, instead suggesting that Rick sell back the property and vacate it at once. Rick refuses. Beech then tells Rick to leave Stella alone. Once again, Rick defies Beech by picking up Stella along the open road and driving her to church. But by now even Rick is certain Stella should never return to Winwood – a decision that leaves the girl momentarily forlorn. Rick relents to Stella’s requests to return to Winwood. But when she collapses inside the atelier, Rick sends immediately for Dr. Scott (Alan Napier) who explains something of the mystery of Winwood. It seems that Stella’s father, Meredith, was an artist of some repute who had an affair with one of his models, a Spanish gypsy named Carmella. When Stella’s mother Mary learned of this she ordered Carmella out of Winwood. But Carmella’s return met with an untimely end when Mary was cast into the sea and Carmella later committed suicide – or, at least, so it would seem.
We move into the third act under the duress of a litany of clichés; beginning with a séance conducted by Rick, Dr. Scott and Pamela for Stella’s benefit. It’s a rouse, Rick conspiring with Dr. Scott to control the movement of the wine glass so that Stella will receive answers to her questions that will satisfy her curiosities about her mother. But when Stella wisely deduces that Rick and Dr. Scott are manipulating the results she orders them to remove their fingers from the glass, the cut crystal moving on its own across the table before casting itself into the nearby open hearth. The room fills with the scent of mimosa, a memory rekindled from Stella’s childhood recollections of her mother and the girl begins to speak in tongues – Spanish, actually. Afterward, a cold blast of air from the French doors invades and Stella collapses, Beech bursting in and demanding that Stella be placed in his care. Beech also relieves Dr. Scott of his duties as family physician and places Stella in Miss Holloway’s care. Holloway is cruel woman – her menace implied as she willfully goads Stella into believing she is losing her mind. Holloway tells Rick and Pamela that she was Mary Meredith’s best friend from childhood and that Carmella likely murdered Mary out of jealousy by pushing her off the cliff near Winwood.
Yet, the pieces don’t quite fit.  So Dr. Scott conveniently consults the diaries of his predecessor, the late Dr. Rudd who disliked Miss Holloway but wrote extensively on Mary’s condition shortly before her death. Rudd speculates that Holloway – not Carmella – murdered Mary to attempt a seduction of her husband, Meredith – who later died of presumably natural causes in France. Scott, however, manages to piece together the clues to reveal a darker truth – that Stella was not Mary’s child but rather Carmella’s, the girl kept from her biological mother after Mary bitterly agreed to adopt the child. But when Carmella returned to be near both her baby and the man she loved, Mary murdered Carmella, accidentally plummeting to her own death. As a bitter spirit, Mary has been determined to keep Carmella from loving and protecting Stella. It is Carmella’s cries that have been heard in the night; Carmella who spoke to Rick, Pamela and Dr. Scott through Stella during the séance; Carmella who protects Stella from Mary’s ghost, the latter plotting to drive Stella to kill herself in the same manner as her mother died.
Having gone insane, Miss Holloway releases Stella from her care, encouraging the girl to take a train back to Winwood where she is certain Mary will take her life. Rick, Pamela and Dr. Scott, who have come to the asylum to demand Stella’s release, discover she is already well on her way to the house and make haste to prevent the seemingly inevitable. Arriving first to Winwood, Stella discovers Beech, who is dying, waiting for her in the upstairs attic. He orders her from the house, telling Stella it is for her own good, as death will surely come there to claim her. But it is too late. Mary’s ghost has re-materialized, causing Beech to suffer a fatal heart attack. Stella’s screams are heard by Rick, Pamela and Dr. Scott – her panicked departure from Winwood moments later thwarted by Rick who once again who prevents Stella from going over the cliff where her mother – Carmella – died. Confronting Mary’s ghost, Rick hurls a candelabra into the upstairs atelier, thereby driving out Mary’s destructive spirit from Winwood once and for all. As everyone listens, Carmella’s echoed laughter fills the halls.
The Uninvited is rather convoluted and unevenly paced. The spirits of two violently opposed women who continue to struggle for the soul of the child whose birth effectively killed them both really doesn’t make all that much sense. Why, for example, is Mary’s more sinister apparition the stronger influence throughout our story, capable of compelling Stella to attempt suicide twice, while Carmella’s can only weep during the waning hours of night or speak to Rick, Pamela and Dr. Scott using her own daughter as a medium but in a language none of them can understand?  Why does Beech elect to place his granddaughter in the care of Miss Holloway when she so obviously despises Stella? And why does Holloway release her to return to Winwood moments before Rick, Pamela and Dr. Scott arrive to demand Stella’s release anyway? No, the screenplay is a heavy-handed affair at best; unable to drop visual clues that would allow the audience to piece together the mystery for themselves. Director Lewis Allen instead relies on leaden, wordy and utterly contrived ‘explanations’ given by various characters ad nauseam: Rick, Dr. Scott and Pamela talking through the history of Winwood in a series of very static deductions and discussions.
It doesn’t really work except in a faux Agatha Christie-esque sort of way; the perfunctory conclusions made almost as afterthoughts to explain away the phenomena thus far defying logic. But movies are about ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ – or should be. Visually, The Uninvited is rather uninspiring. The scenes taking place at night are simply done in darkness and shadow while the daytime sequences contain no sense of foreboding or foreshadowing whatsoever. Ray Milland is a weak – and far too old - love interest for Gail Russell’s placid ingénue; a mere waif to his cultured sophisticate. It’s an odd and not very convincing love match with virtually no spark of romance to recommend it. Ruth Hussey’s place in the story is rather pointless, her devoted sister dear fading into the background almost from the moment the Smith/Partos screenplay decides to focus on Stella and Rick’s awkward and, at times, woefully contrived romance instead. Cornelia Otis Skinner’s wicked asylum curator is a rather obvious attempt to invoke the sinister qualities of a Gale Sondergaard. But Miss Holloway’s conversion from steely-eyed vamp to emotionally unhinged gargoyle is too quickly realized to be believed.
The Smith/Partos screenplay mangles and wastes its first act on a series of vignettes that quite simply never add up – the sail around the coast where Rick becomes seasick, as example – meant to establish the feeblest of romantic interest between Rick and Stella that will just as quickly be discarded after he assumes a rather paternal affection to get to the bottom of her supernatural malady. The screwball chase through Winwood by the Fitzgeralds that kicks off the movie, with Bobby pursuing his squirrel; Rick and Beech’s adversarial sparring; two stubborn mules at loggerheads that goes absolutely nowhere fast; Beech’s cryptic contact with Holloway whom he implicitly trusts despite his obvious devotion to his granddaughter and Holloway’s even more obvious maniacal tendencies toward the Meredith family.
Watching these moments rather haphazardly unfurl – most as red herrings – lumped together like the ill-fitted pieces of a perplexing jigsaw puzzle, one is reminded of Hitchcock’s superior handling of similar elements in Rebecca and the way Hitchcock builds situational romantic comedy into a moment when all of its lightness believably, suddenly – and unexpectedly - evaporates into a far more sinister reality afoot.  The Uninvited’s first act never achieves this seemingly natural progression toward suspense, but repeatedly delays the inevitable until late into its second act, before unleashing chaos in its final moments; the revelations detonated rather than exposed, as though they were sticks of narrative dynamite to be exploded in the audience’s consciousness. It’s a troubling, rather than unsettling last act, capped off by Milland’s glib shrugging off of Mary Meredith as “She might have been my mother-in-law!” a moot point considering Mary’s been dead for well over a decade.
Various notable critics and movie directors have labeled The Uninvited as the greatest ghost story ever made. I just don’t see it. I found it dull, boring and occasionally absurd with only a few brilliant flashes to recommend it. What can I say? We all have our opinions as to what makes a great movie. Mine obviously differ from the ensconced status quo. However, on what constitutes a great hi-def transfer, the opinion is frankly unanimous and Criterion’s newly minted Blu-ray, which I have been fortunate enough to pre-screen and therefore can offer an opinion about well in advance of its official October release is an exemplary mastering effort. There’s really no point in comparing previously issued DVDs with Criterion’s newly minted hi-def master. This one excels in virtually all aspects; the tonality of the gray scale superb, with solid contrast and razor-sharp fine details. If you are a fan of this movie then you are decidedly in for a treat. The Uninvited looks spectacular with only spotty age-related flaws and virtually no obvious digital manipulations to detract.
The PCM mono audio provides an added kick to Victor Young’s iconic score, dialogue sounding more refreshed and vital. Michael Almereyda’s nearly 30 min. visual essay, Giving Up the Ghost is about the only highlight worth mentioning. We also get a pair of radio adaptations. Personally, I must confess to never having listened to just about any of these as extras. Criterion rounds out its special features with a trailer and liner notes by critic Farran Smith Nehme and a 1997 interview conducted with director Lewis Allen. Bottom line: The Uninvited was fairly unwelcome at my house. Your thoughts and appreciation of it may differ, but I really wouldn’t recommend it – certainly not as one of the best ghost stories ever made!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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