Friday 14 April 2017

Blanche Fury (1948)

Director: Marc All├ęgret
Writers: Audrey Lindop and Cecil McGivern, from the novel by Joseph Shearing, with additional dialogue by Hugh Mills
Stars: Stewart Granger and Valerie Hobson

Index: 2017 Centennials.

If there was any doubt as to what genre this picture falls under, it vanishes with the title card. A primitive painting of an isolated and foreboding mansion against a sky so dark and tortured that it seems like a tsunami ready to wash over the house. A carefully italicised font that looks like handwriting, coloured the orange of faded blood. A title that at once introduces the leading lady and subtly hints at dark emotions; ‘fury’ meaning destructive rage and ‘blanche’ meaning to turn white, often through abject fear or shock. Yes, these are quintessential components of the gothic and this is a powerful one that perhaps stands up today because of its heady atmosphere of doom. There have been better movies made in this genre, Hitchcock’s Rebecca being merely the obvious choice and Dragonwyck and The Uninvited following in its footsteps, but few contain anything close to the ache for catastrophe the doomed lovers of Blanche Fury exude like sweat. This doomed romance has an unusual emphasis on the first word not the second.

After the title card, we see a skeletal tree and hear the wind, even though the painted clouds aren’t moving. We follow a pair of urgent riders as they exhort their horses through the woods and up the manicured paths of Clare Hall. Oh yes, I’d buy that place for a dollar! It’s a gorgeous, if rather brutal box of a mansion, the external shots being of Wootton Lodge, in Staffordshire, which dates back to 1611; it’s currently owned by the family of Joseph Cyril Bamford, who founded the company named for his initials, now the third largest manufacturer of construction equipment in the world. The internal shots are just as striking, though these were sets back at Pinewood Studios with high ceilings, ornate doorways and a plethora of paintings. As you might expect, there’s also a young lady in bed, clearly ill and those riders are the doctors doing what they can for her. She’s very weak, they say, as we shift into abstract visuals and echoed dialogue as she dies.

The character is Blanche Fury and the actress is Valerie Hobson, who would have been a hundred years old today. This movie was made for her, as what she later described as ‘a sort of ‘loving gift’’ by her husband, the producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, to firm her up in the minds of audiences once again as a leading lady. She’d been a notable actress in the thirties, with a fantastic year at Universal in 1935, where she played major roles in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Bride of Frankenstein (as the wife of Dr. Frankenstein, who is not, you will recall, the title character) and Werewolf of London, the first Hollywood werewolf movie. As the thirties became the forties, she was the leading lady in two early Powell and Pressburger movies: The Spy in Black and Contraband, both opposite Conrad Veidt. However, she took most of the war years off to give birth to their first son, Simon, born with Down Syndrome, and her successful return in David Lean’s Great Expectations was among a star-studded ensemble cast.

Blanche Fury was her next film and, while her co-star, Stewart Granger, is technically billed first, gothics are almost always stories about women and this is no exception: she’s the lead and Granger plays her love interest, rather than the other way around. This film, following Great Expectations and to be soon followed by the blackest black comedy ever made, Kind Hearts and Coronets, meant that she was firmly back at the top. However, she and Havelock-Allan divorced in 1952, one last prolific year for her as she retired a couple later, after marrying John Profumo, the well-connected MP for Stratford-on-Avon. Almost a decade later, at the heart of the Cold War, the Profumo Affair brought down not only his career but the Conservative government of the day. Even though he had indulged in an affair with Christine Keeler, a model less than half his age, Hobson stood by him and they dedicated the entire rest of their lives to charity, Profumo initially cleaning toilets at Toynbee Hall, an East End charity that aimed to combat poverty.
Of course, it’s Hobson who indulges in an affair here, through her character, initially named Blanche Fuller. After the death of her parents, she works her way through a number of thankless jobs as companions to invalids, until she receives an unexpected letter from her uncle, offering employment at Clare Hall, as companion and governess to her young niece, Lavinia. This is the ancestral home of the Fury family, dating back centuries. However, when Allan (or Adam, depending on which version you read) Fury died without legal issue, his estate went to his wife’s family, the Fullers, who promptly adopted the Fury name. Now it’s run by Simon Fury, Blanche’s uncle, who will soon gift it to his son, Laurence, whom Blanche marries for ‘position and security’. The catch, you won’t be surprised to find, is that she doesn’t love him, even if he isn’t quite as ‘weak and insipid’ as Wikipedia might suggest. She loves Philip Thorn instead, officially the estate’s steward but really the illegitimate son of Allan (or Adam) Fury.

This is a glorious way to build suspense. Simon Fury employs Thorn because he’s very good at his job, but he inexplicably fails to acknowledge that the reason he’s very good at his job is, in large part, because he cares deeply for the history of the Fury family and their estate. He burns with resentment for the Fullers, whom he sees as interlopers squatting on his rightful inheritance. As the son of Allan (or Adam) Fury, everything around him should be his and he’s hired an attorney, Samuel Calamy, to track down legal documents to prove that his father married his mother, an Italian lady, decades earlier. Ironically, Stewart Granger, who is appropriately arrogant and brooding here, really was of Italian heritage; his middle name, Leblanche, was taken from the Italian opera singer, Luigi Lablache, his great-great-grandfather, who taught the future Queen Victoria to sing. Incidentally, the names around that are not what you expect; born James Stewart, he adopted Stewart Granger on becoming an actor to avoid confusion.
Gothics have a tendency of dabbling in the supernatural, often as a precursor to madness, and this one drops a few hints. Thorn recounts to Blanche the story of Alaric Fury, who adopted a barbary ape on his way to the First Crusade. When he died in battle, the ape refused to let anyone near his body. Legend says that the ape still protects the family, encapsulated in the subtle motto: ‘Beware Fury’s Ape’. That’s nothing to do with reality, suggests Blanche, to which Thorn ominously replies, ‘We shall see.’ These are just hints, though, as the real supporting players in the coming story are a band of gypsies, who enter into an escalating war: they steal a couple of Fury horses, Thorn and Blanche steal them back and things get worse from then on, with a barn set on fire during the party after Blanche and Laurence’s wedding. Soon after, with Blanche and Thorn bemoaning their respective fates, a throwaway line that, ‘I wish they’d die’ leads them both to realise possibilities. The question is whether they’ll do it together.

The affair here isn’t too effective at romance, but it’s fantastic for being destructive. Granger doesn’t smoulder like a walk on the wild side but he does carry the bitter and twisted really well and Hobson picks up some of that. They feel doomed from the outset, not least because there are really two love triangles going on here simultaneously. While we think we’re watching Laurence and Blanche and Thorn, we’re really watching Blanche, Thorn and Clare Hall. For all that he’s an arrogant prick, who only gets more arrogant as he starts to orchestrate things his way, he does care about more than himself; he cares about his family’s history and aches to be a legitimate part of that, running the estate not because he’s paid to do so but because it’s his. ‘You presume too much and too often,’ Simon Fury tells him and he’s right, but he actually becomes more believably aristocratic as he starts to believe he might just get what he wants. When he tells Blanche, ‘I’m the only real Fury here’, he’s being arrogant but he isn’t lying.
While Granger is spectacularly good at playing a servant who refuses to know his place, we can’t forget that Hobson has a similar role. She’s not of quite so important stock, but she begins the film living below her station and she knows it, having to keep quiet as invalid employers like Mrs. Winterbourne lay into her for £16 a year. There’s an unusual shot in a corridor here that highlights how claustrophobic her life has become; to our 21st century eyes, it looks like it was shot on an iPhone. The cinematographer was Guy Green, who had just won an Oscar for shooting Great Expectations, highlighting just how small the world can be. Two actresses played Estella in that film: the adult Estella was Valerie Hobson, whose character here falls in love with Stewart Granger’s, while the younger was Jean Simmons, who married him for real (in Tucson) only two years after this; he was 37, she only 19. We might fairly rage at how Hollywood always pairs older actors with younger actresses, but sometimes it led to reality following suit.

I appreciated Hobson’s role here, though her character is quite literally not able to let her hair down more often than a couple of scenes. The first time that happens is arguably her best scene, as Laurence walks upstairs to ask her down to play host to some of his friends. She refuses, which stuns him into an eloquently misogynistic speech about how wives must obey their husbands and we never buy a word of it. I had some sympathy for poor Laurence, but this scene was a powerful one for Hobson and she owns it absolutely. I should point out that Laurence is played superbly by Michael Gough, in an emphatically different role to the one he played in Horrors of the Black Museum, which I reviewed for his own centennial only five months ago. This is generally listed as his debut, though Anna Karenina premiered a month earlier, and he does a great job of appearing weak but sympathetic. Certainly a product of his time and upbringing, he’s just trying to do his best by his family and I liked him more than I did the leads.
A few other actors deserve brief mention too. Walter Fitzgerald endows Simon Fury with a Robert Hardy sort of feel. He was well known for that sort of haughty but honest demeanour long before Hardy made it his own; the latter only made one feature while the former was working in film. This was at the peak of Fitzgerald’s career, with this and The Fallen Idol in 1948 leading to arguably his best role, as Squire Trelawney in the Disney version of Treasure Island, two years later. Sybille Binder impressed me too, if less for what she did as what she didn’t do. She plays Louisa, who arrived at Clare Hall from Italy forty years earlier, with her mistress (and Thorn’s mother); now she becomes Blanche’s maid. She’s at once a little overdone and utterly part of the scenery. She looms out of the backgrounds like she was painted into them and her habit of moving very little actually works, for a change, because of that. Maurice Denham is also solid as a very honest family friend, Maj. Fraser, who investigates the inevitable deaths.

And yes, there are deaths, two of them to be exact, and they’re inspired by a true case of murder exactly a century earlier, which is rather appropriate, given the circumstances of my reviewing this film. These were the murders at Stanfield Hall, in Norwich, a father and son killed by a tenant-farmer who had fallen on hard times and designed a scheme to defraud them of both their lives and their property, with a governess his unwitting accomplice. He killed under disguise, but was recognised, arrested and found guilty of murder; the kicker was that his mistress refused to provide him the alibi he had set up. He defended himself in court, to little effect, and was hanged. This true case was adapted by Joseph Shearing, who specialised in mysteries inspired by true crime cases, though Shearing was actually a pseudonym. The author was Mrs. Gabrielle Long, who was best known as Marjorie Bowen, prolific author of gothic romances and other works. This screen adaptation gives no credit to that source novel.
Oddly, those involved don’t see this film in the greatest light. Granger called it ‘a silly story, too grim and melodramatic’, but then he has famously said that he enjoyed precious few of his own films, going only as far as to call this one, ‘a wonderful looking film.’ Producer Havelock-Allan has said that he aimed to make a costumed melodrama like those with which Gainsborough Pictures had so much success in the mid-forties, but ‘a serious one with a better story’. His mistake, or so he suggests, was to make a ‘hard’ film rather than a ‘soft’ one. ‘There was a real hatred in it as well as love, and the public didn’t want it.’ Today, I’d argue that this is the reason why the film works so well. We’re never in doubt as to where Thorn’s true affections lie and it’s not with any human being; his name is as appropriate to his character as Blanche’s new surname, because hell hath no fury and all that. At the time, this was a welcome back for Valerie Hobson, but it stands up today as a strong memorial to her talents.

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