Wednesday 2 January 2008

The Woman in White (1948) Peter Godfrey

Wilkie Collins wrote The Woman in White in 1859 and given its popularity you can be sure that 1948 didn't see the first film adaptation. In fact there were four versions in the silent era alone plus an English sound film loosely based on the novel. However it was only in 1948 when some genius casting director decided to pair Sydney Greenstreet and Agnes Moorehead up as a married couple.

We're in England in 1851, in the town of Limmeridge. Gig Young is the lead, as a painter called Walter Hartright, and he's visiting Limmeridge House to be a tutor to Frederick Fairlie's niece. On arrival in the town he walks to the house and encounters on the way a mysterious young lady, all dressed in white, for whom people seem to be searching. Greenstreet is one of them, as Count Fosco, an Italian critic and scientist, but he's not the only one. When Hartright meets young Laura Fairlie and is struck by the resemblance between her and the woman in white, mistaking them for one and the same.

The mystery deepens, as various relationships complicate things. Hartright falls for Laura and she apparently for him, but she's about to be married to someone else whom she does not love. Laura's cousin, Marian, falls for Hartright too but of course doesn't get anywhere. The woman in white herself is apparently some sort of relation too, one who had been institutionalised but escaped and has all sorts of stories to tell. Meanwhile the master of the house is a bizarre sort of weak hypochondriac easily dominated, thus becoming the weak link in the chain.

Then we jump forward a year and everything has become completely bizarre, to Marian's shock and horror. All the servants have been replaced, Laura has married the moneygrabbing Sir Percival Glyde and the submissive Countess Fosco has arrived. Nothing seems to make any sense any more, except that it has now become aboundingly obvious that a fiendish plot is in effect and Count Fosco is behind it all. Greenstreet excels here in a gift of a part where he can throw his weight about, dominate people and cast his shifty hypnotic eyes about. The other dream role goes to John Abbott as Frederick Fairlie who has little of substance to do but shines doing it.

There's some overacting here and some perpetually static camerawork, but it's a powerful film. It's a solid gothic tale with Greenstreet, Abbott and some great use of shadows dominating over the leads. Gig Young, Alexis Smith and Eleanor Parker are all fine but outshone to no small degree. Agnes Moorehead as Countess Fosco is excellent but on screen for far too short a time.

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