Tuesday 27 February 2024

Moss Rose (1947)

Director: Gregory Ratoff
Writers: Jules Furthman and Tom Reed, adapted by Niven Busch from the novel by Joseph Shearing
Stars: Peggy Cummins, Victor Mature and Ethel Barrymore

Index: The First Thirty.

It would be easy to find fault with Moss Rose, a gothic film noir murder mystery drama of a movie, but it feels relentlessly unusual and I’d be lying if I said that it’s not going to stay with me. I have a feeling I’m going to remember it a lot longer and a lot more fondly than Vincent Price’s previous couple of movies, even if he isn’t actually in it much. It kept me guessing all the way, partly about whodunit but mostly about where the heck it would travel next. It’s thoroughly unpredictable.

Breaking his trend of playing four villainous roles in a row, Price is a police inspector here in a Victorian London straight out of Jack the Ripper, with cobbled Coin St., near Waterloo Bridge, drenched in fog. It starts suspensefully with young chorus girl Belle Adair going home from work and wondering who’s hiding in the shadows watching her. Of course, we can see that it’s Victor Mature, who we don’t expect to play a 19th century stalker.

If that’s our first surprise, our second is that Belle is not our victim; that’s a friend, fellow chorus girl and neighbour, Daisy Arrow, who’s flustered already the moment we first meet her. As Belle goes on a date with Georgie that night, the pair of them hear Mature’s voice as he rides off with Daisy. Next day, she brushes past him on the stairs to her apartment. She’s coming in and Mature’s rushing out in a hurry because Daisy’s dead in her room, having been drugged and then smothered.

This is when we realise that Belle is the lead character, in the form of Peggy Cummins, who was aiming at a blatant London accent because she was Irish. She’s a real scream queen here, leaning out of a window and letting the whole of London know her friend is dead. Ironically, I know her from a horror movie, but Night of the Demon wouldn’t arrive for another decade.

Price, of course, is well known for his horror films but he wouldn’t be cast in a true example of the genre for another seven years, when he would play the lead in House of Wax. Here, he’s a sophisticated detective, Insp. R. Clinner, who knows exactly what the flower is that was left inside the bible next to Daisy’s corpse and also that moss roses are out of season. That’s why the title; it’s a serial killer motif. And yes, that means there will be more deaths.

While I’m not sure that we’re given a date, I believe we’re in 1872, because this picture was based on a novel, written by historical novelist Marjorie Bowen under the pen name of Joseph Shearing, that was in turn based on a real life case, the murder of Harriet Buswell. She was killed in 1872 and, like Jack the Ripper sixteen years later, her case was never solved. Bowen clearly wanted a resolution, so wrote one.

That Daisy’s killer is identified at the end of this picture isn’t the third surprise; that was a requirement the Production Code had for any Hollywood film. The third surprise is that this doesn’t really shift, as we should expect, from suspense to police-driven crime. Sure, Clinner is on the case but we follow Belle instead as she follows the trail on her own, fearlessly too.

She finds the cabbie who took Mature away from Daisy and persuades him to spill where he dropped him. She goes to his place, tiny as she is, and confronts him with vigour, before sending an anonymous note to Clinner that he should talk to Michael Drego, for that’s who he is. When she’s then called in to identify him, she acts confused, unable to identify him for sure. And then she starts her blackmail efforts.

Surprise four, if it isn’t surprise eight, is the way she does that. While she does initially ask for money and he delivers it, she sends it right back again and explains that what she wants is to visit Charnleigh Manor, his family’s home in Devon, and spend a fortnight as a real lady. I was absolutely not expecting that, or indeed that she comes clean to Michael that her real name is Rose Lynton, Belle Adair being merely her stage name in the chorus line.

Where it goes from there I’ll let you find out by watching this movie, because nothing here flows the way I expected. It doesn’t quite turn into a cross between Rebecca and My Fair Lady, but both are there and I was constantly kept on the hop about where it was going, right up to the final scene, a bookend to the opening on a fast moving train.

I will say that it’s here at Charnleigh that we meet the other principal players. There’s the elegant Patricia Medina, playing Michael’s fiancĂ©e, Audrey Ashton, who’s about to marry him in a prominent society wedding. There’s the ever watchable Ethel Barrymore as Lady Margaret Drego, his mother. And there’s even another horror icon in George Zucco, as family butler, Craxton.

In short, Price is in good company and he clearly enjoys scenes with Barrymore. He has talked about that, stating, “I was terrified of her until one day between takes she waddles up and whispers, ‘Got a smoke?’” The scene of the pair of them chatting about moss roses in the Charnleigh Manor greenhouse is joyous.

As a mystery, this is surprisingly effective. I seriously considered four characters for these murders, so the red herrings are capable. As a mood piece, the shift from period to film noir to gothic is unusual and perplexing. The thing is that it’s also a drama, a romance, a comment on the class system and a subtle affirmation of female power, among other things, no doubt. It is nothing if not ambitious in its subtle way.

Price doesn’t have much to do but he pops up here and there as a reminder that the force is on the case and he’s a worthy inspector. While his character isn’t developed much, the little we get is enough to make us think about spinning him off into his own series.

The male lead is Victor Mature, who rather breezes through this film, changing intensity but otherwise allowing the women to run the show. In many ways, he’s the MacGuffin, with a trio of dominant women battling over which will own him, each for a very different reason.

Maybe this dominance of Cummins, Medina and Barrymore makes this a women’s picture, but I’m male and found it utterly fascinating. It’s this that firmly reminds me that, while we see certain genres as male dominated, horror and science fiction among them, it’s not true. Women wrote both, in large quantities, just in publications men didn’t see, like 19th century women’s magazines. If Marjorie Bowen, who is as known for supernatural horror as historical romance, came from that, I want to read more.

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