What a strange, dreamy film is Terence Young’s Corridor of Mirrors (1948), now on Blu-ray from Cohen Film Collection. The title makes you imagine visual extravagance and this is a highly visual film, although the corridor in question doesn’t go wild with mirror effects. Rather, the film begins with a strange vibe and gets stranger and darker until, like its heroine, you hardly know where you are or which century it is.
The film opens in a bucolic household in Wales, a day’s train journey from London, occupied by a couple and their three young children. Mifanwy (Edana Romney) awakens from a dream, or is she waking into one? As her husband and children tease her, we sense that she hardly wants to get out of bed, though this is the day she’s been summoned to London on a mysterious errand.
We see her kids plainly enough, but stolid husband Owen (Hugh Sinclair) is seen only from the back or as an off-screen voice. This approach conveys an emotional disconnection and underlines the sense that we’re inside her private, claustrophobic, highly subjective world. In fact, it will be more than 35 minutes before the film shows us a scene outside of her presence.
On the stuffy train, presented with ominous closeups of fellow passengers, Mifanwy’s voiceover tells herself with wonder, “I’m going to see my lover” and we learn that she’s receiving letters of blackmail, the latest one setting an appointment at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. The film is slightly deceitful here, for she knows something we won’t learn until she gets to the museum and we’re introduced to the effigy representing her lover. In other words, he’s an executed murderer, or his waxwork wouldn’t be here. So the blackmailer isn’t the lover she’s “meeting”.
The waxwork triggers Mifanwy’s film-long flashback to the story of Paul Mangin, her first lover, an artist whose medium is his own life. In his fabulous mansion with dated artifacts, including a Victorian hansom cab, he pretends to live in previous eras. Brooding Paul is played by top-billed Eric Portman, a matinee idol who had a line in playing killers and Nazis. He’s not as well-known outside England as he deserves to be.
Mifanwy met Paul Mangin when she was a Bright Young Thing hanging out in nightclubs with others of her bored, brittle species. Her father, a titled judge (Bruce Belfrage), says they’re “waiting for something to happen”.
Recognizable among Mifanwy’s party at the club is Christopher Lee in his film debut as her date, and the future Miss Moneypenny, Lois Maxwell, already throwing out wry one-liners. They and the whole room fall into an expectant hush when Mangin enters, like the Prince of Wales. He spots Mifanwy across a crowded room, makes a beeline for her and draws her into a dance without a word, then leaves just as abruptly.
On their third encounter, he picks her up in his hansom cab and takes her to his fantasy mansion. He declares that he intends to “charm” her by making her see the world from his escapist point of view, as he can well afford. When next she visits the place, she discovers the titular corridor of mirrored doors. They reveal gowns that fit her perfectly, by an odd coincidence and loads of matching jewels. We might think of the legend of Bluebeard, except Paul doesn’t forbid her to open any doors.
Odd goings-on include observation by a furry white cat who belongs to the moon-waifish Veronica (Barbara Mullen), who might be bonkers and certainly tries to spoil the fun. So does another jealous woman, the red-headed model Caroline (Joan Maude), who hangs out with a very fey costume designer, Edgar (Alan Wheatley).
Some time around the point when Mangin unveils a certain portrait, we may well think of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), as filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940. Indeed, we’ll start thinking of all kinds of Gothic “madwoman in the attic” melodramas about the mysterious secrets of handsome brooders who cast a spell on young heroines, and all kinds of stories about bewitching portraits and fantasy make-overs.
The source novel here is by one Chris or Christopher Massie, a forgotten English writer who seems to have specialized in baroque psychologizing. Even though this is Mifanwy’s story, dominated by her flashback, the center is the oddity of Paul Mangin, who may or may not be capable of murder (and if not, it isn’t for lack of trying) and who’s certainly all about fabricating his own reality with human mannequins.
Corridor of Mirrors remains discreet, even ambiguous, about whether Mifanwy goes to bed with her “lover” Paul. We might make this assumption just because it’s reasonable, though when she maneuvers herself into staying overnight, they trade fraught glances before he dashes from the room. She’s the one visibly frustrated. Perhaps Paul wants an ideal fantasy woman he can dress up without having to touch. In retrospect, this ambiguity seems to trade on Portman’s closeted vibe.
The story keeps throwing in bizarre revelations and behavior, including possibly supernatural explanations that we won’t go into, leading to a magnificent fairy-tale costume ball, half Italian Renaissance, half A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That’s the film’s big setpiece, and it’s a heady knockout. By the way, Romney had previously played Titania in a production of the Shakespeare play.
This is a British film shot in a Paris studio with French artists doing very lush work behind the scenes, including black and white cinematographer André Thomas and romantic composer Georges Auric. The Blu-ray packaging cites the influences of Jean Cocteau‘s Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête, 1946) and David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), and these are very clear in addition to the long line of Gothic romance.
We can even look forward to such clammy style-fests as Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Critic Imogen Sara Smith makes the connection in an essay about Corridor of Mirrors on the Criterion website: “It is tempting to see an acknowledgment of this resonance in Hitchcock’s film when Madeleine (Kim Novak), apparently possessed by a long-dead ancestor, compares her confused state to ‘walking along a corridor of broken mirrors.'” Smith also cannily describes Corridor of Mirrors as about “the tension between the pull of nostalgia and the suspicion of it.”
Although this film is the directorial debut of Terence Young, who acquits himself very well indeed, we can’t call him the auteur. This was the long-incubated project of Edana Romney and Rudolph Cartier, the co-producers and co-writers. They formed their own company, bought the rights to the novel, and labored for years to interest studios in the project as a vehicle for Romney as star and Cartier as director.
In the end, Young was hired as director, apparently to satisfy union rules. This leaves open the question of how much he himself, like Mifanwy in the hands of Paul Mangin, was molded into the figure needed by strong personalities with well-established ideas of exactly what they wanted. He needed to please his bosses, and we must conclude that he helped realize their vision rather than fashion his own.
Romney was a South African trained in dance, Cartier an Austrian who apprenticed under Max Reinhardt and left the German film industry after the Nazi takeover. Both Romney and Cartier were Jewish. Both moved on to careers on BBC TV, Romney as a presenter and Cartier as one of the most important directors of TV drama, especially in collaboration with writer Nigel Kneale. Cartier also loved directing opera.
Young’s most famous accomplishment as director is three of the first four James Bond films with Sean Connery. Young landed those gigs after 14 journeyman years at all kinds of British escapist fare. You’d never watch Corridor of Mirrors, which imbibes from the same stream as inebriate British visionaries like Thorold Dickinson and Michael Powell, and think “That guy will be great for James Bond,” even though Bond is one or two baroque degrees from reality. And look, Lois Maxwell hit her stride as Moneypenny. Perhaps the seed of Bond really is here.
The Cohen disc advertises itself as a new digital restoration. While the image looks rich, the sound is on the thick side, with an undertone of hiss. It’s rather like the cotton left in your head after waking from a strong potion.