Two new films from the Warner Archives made-on-demand website star acclaimed actresses as lonely, desperate women in oppressive households.
Home Before Dark (1958) opens with a beautiful wintry scene that turns out to be the grounds of a mental hospital. Charlotte Bronn, 26, (Jean Simmons), a fragile little child-wife, is coming home after a year. Her husband Arnold (Ed O’Herlihy) is a stiff who’s clearly uncomfortable at the prospect of taking his wife home, and we understand he’d just as soon leave her here. He’s especially disappointed to be told there’s no reason he can’t have sex with his wife.
Driving her home, he talks shop about his position as an English professor. He’s got a visiting teacher staying in their home, a Jacob Diamond (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.). He’s a controversial hiring choice because they’ve never had a Jew before and “of course nobody wants an influx”, but he, Arnold, as you know, has always been against anti-Semitism (you can already visualize him smoking his pipe if he weren’t driving), especially when he thinks it’s good for his career.
At this point, ten minutes into the movie, the viewer knows pretty well that the homecoming isn’t going to go swimmingly, that Arnold is a pill, and that Charlotte will probably be attracted to the houseguest. It seems like a serious, earnest problem picture, and there are several problems to choose from, beginning with how to be “understanding” of nervous breakdowns and mental illness, such things that were supposedly as exotic in ‘50s Boston as Jews. All of the preceding is true, but this isn’t seriously a film about mental illness because there’s actually nothing wrong with Charlotte. It’s not about adultery because nobody has it, and it’s not really about the discreetly decorative references to anti-Semitism, which come to nothing.
It’s a woman’s film in which the problem is the marriage, a state that other films end on happily as the fulfillment of all a heroine’s narrative promises. Our heroine’s problem is that Arnold doesn’t love her, as evidenced by his avoidance of any sexual contact. Contemporary reviews might have described Charlotte as “obsessive”, but there’s nothing unreasonable about expecting sex with her husband.
Charlotte believes that she kind of tricked him into marriage because she was imitating her outgoing stepsister Joan (Rhonda Fleming), with whom her gets along much better, and after he figured out the difference, he’s been mooning around Joan ever since. This has led tongues to waggle, but everyone has pretended otherwise, that everything is just ducky, that any qualms she feels are all in her head, that she should take another pill and lie down. We’re asked to believe that they’ve all half-convinced Charlotte she’s really crazy by acting as if she is, not unlike the much later film A Woman Under the Influence. When enough people believe you’re crazy, you believe it yourself and fulfill their expectations.
Mind you, the movie does have her push a few “bonkers” buttons, the climax of humiliation occurring when she makes a public spectacle of herself in a New York restaurant. Her suspicions prey upon her so that she does apparently get carried away with certain ideas of persecution, like the notion that she’s being drugged, but all her suspicions at least have a reasonable basis and the audience knows it.
The solution is obvious: she should divorce her husband. Fortunately, the money and house are already hers, she doesn’t need to work, there are no kids, and she’s got at least two suitors waiting in the wings. All this is far more than the average 50s housewife would have. Indeed, the cards are stacked to make her the perfect candidate for divorce so that nothing distracts us from the issue and no impediments exist except in her own mind. The climax can only be reached if she “grows up” or “comes of age” and takes her life in her hands.
This may seem an awfully elaborate structure to support a conclusion that the audience reached in the first reel, but it’s a sign of how, even as late as 1958, Hollywood wasn’t quite ready to support divorce as a solution. The Production Code said divorce should never be taken lightly or solve anyone’s problems. When Hollywood make Dodsworth (from a prestigious novel), it went miles out of its way to justify that its noble male should divorce his intolerable wife. Twenty-five years later, this movie is finally allowing that there are circumstances in which a woman should divorce her husband—and he’s not even a monster, just a repressed jerk. The class element is allowed a place here, as Arnold is just too stuffy a Brahmin-type to be saddled onto the waiflike Charlotte. (Can the name Charlotte Bron be intended as a play on Bronte, perhaps a comment of what Jane Eyre’s marriage to Rochester might be like?)
In this light, we can see that Home Before Dark is a cultural signpost. And a handsome one, shot in crystalline black and white by Joseph F. Biroc on location in Massachusetts. Charlotte’s house is designed and lit oppressively and claustrophobically, and the furnishing comes with not one but two mummies: a busybody stepmother (Mabel Albertson) and a purse-lipped cook (Kathryn Card). Charlotte’s first sign of independent thought, after regaining control of her bank account, is to fire the cook, thus reasserting her prerogatives over all aspects of her property, including the help.
Produced and directed by veteran Mervyn LeRoy near the end of his long career, it takes its time and perhaps feels a mite too “big” and oppressive, even with dashes of “crazy” music in the lush score by Franz Waxman, for what is at heart such a slight story. One can easily wish Douglas Sirk had taken a crack at it. Still, every scene is careful and detailed and works on its own terms in creating the movie’s world. Robert & Eileen Bassing wrote the screenplay from the latter’s novel. Simmons, a two-time Oscar nominee, was widely praised for this performance.
The Night Digger (1971)
The Night Digger (known as The Road Builder in England) is also about a woman, treated like a child, who must finally get a divorce—in this case from her mother. Or rather the woman who adopted her at 15, apparently because she wanted a free maid and caretaker.
Mrs. Prince (Pamela Brown) is a blind birdlike fussbudget and tightwad who lives in a great house that’s falling apart on a property going to seed. Her daughter Maura (Patricia Neal, Oscar winner for Hud) serves her needs not quite uncomplainingly, yet she does bend herself to mother’s will, refusing job offers or romantic attachments that would take her away from her “responsibility” and make her “ungrateful”.
When a young biker named Billy Jarvis (Nicholas Clay) shows up requesting a job, he inveigles his way into the old lady’s graces by planting the bogus suggestion that they might be distantly related, and she’s glad to think so in order to keep him around as an unpaid “guest” who happens to do all the renovation work. Something’s not right with that boy. But now he’s here, Maura finds herself drawn to him, and he’s willing to allow it.
He thinks she looks about 50 or so, and she does, but we’re evidently supposed to believe she’s around 35 and prematurely worn by her life and the partial debility of cerebral aneurisms or strokes. (Neal actually suffered this and walks with a limp.) One of the details that must be overlooked is that Brown doesn’t look old enough to be Neal’s mother, even an adoptive one.
Anyway, we finally get to an explanation of the film’s title when Billy’s little quirk is revealed. It’s a part of this genre’s downbeat, desperate nature that when Maura tumbles to the secret, she is willing to accept it, or thinks she is. It’s impossible to say whether the ending’s good or bad, because it depends on how you look at it. Its ambiguities are genuinely tragic, however, and leave the viewer with a sense of the misfortune of twisted lives. I’m not sure if it’s a horror movie but it’s definitely a thriller of the quiet, sad, absorbing variety.
Roald Dahl scripted it as a vehicle for then-wife Neal. In theory, it’s an adaptation of Joy Cowley’s novel Nest in a Falling Tree, which The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature describes thus: “It is a story of passion, a love affair between a 17-year-old boy, Red, and Maura, an older woman. Maura’s mother, whom she is nursing, rejects Red, but dies of an overdose of medicine. Public opinion gradually turns against Maura, and when Red does too she finds herself alone.”
None of this is a spoiler because Dahl’s script resembles it not at all. Instead he seems to have taken the basic premise of Emlyn Williams’ stage thriller Night Must Fall (filmed twice, and also available through Warner Archives) and crossed it, as a Time Out reviewer cannily observes, with Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher. He also injects his typically acid, hostile wit, most clearly in the fine old time Brown has playing the intolerable Mrs. Prince and her interactions with her ring of aged cronies. The result is a tale that must surely be surprising to fans of Cowley’s novel.
Although director Alastair Reid has a long diverse career in British TV, his three theatrical features of this era are all about young people who spell doom for older people; the others are Baby Love with Linda Hayden and Diana Dors, and Something to Hide with Peter Finch and Shelley Winters. Perhaps the first project typecast him. His direction here has a cluttered, claustrophobic eye inside the house and a drab painterliness outside (kudos to Alex Thomson’s photography), and the actors are well handled. Clay seems a bit outclassed by the women, but his character is supposed to be.
The most decisive contribution, however, comes from composer Bernard Herrmann, whose richly macabre score includes solos for viola d’amore (associated with Neal) and, most disconcertingly, for harmonica (associated with Clay, who plays it at one point). It hits a high point of lushness in the last sequences on the Scottish coast, when the film takes on almost operatic grandeur.
This is one the era’s grody, cynical dramas of people preying on each other. An unreasonable number of them starred Hollywood’s aging female stars and were kicked off by Robert Aldrich and mastered by Curtis Harrington. Titles include Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, What’s the Matter with Helen, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo, What Happened to Aunt Alice, and The Legend of Lylah Clare. We can argue that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is an intellectual equivalent; the title is even a question. At any rate, these led to less flamboyant morbidities like The Killing Kind with Ann Sothern, The Arousers with Tab Hunter, and The Attic with Carrie Snodgress. If you know and like those later films of quiet desperation, you’ll seek out The Night Digger.