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Barbara Bel Geddes,
In a long flashback, a New York publisher is in Venice pursuing the lost love letters of an early-19th-century poet, Jeffrey Ashton, who disappeared mysteriously. Using a false name, Lewis Venable rents a room from Juliana Bordereau, once Jeffrey Ashton's lover, now an aged recluse. Running the household is Juliana's severe niece, Tina, who mistrusts Venable from the first moment. He realizes all is not right when late one night he finds Tina, her hair unpinned and wild, at the piano. She calls him Jeffrey and throws herself at him. The family priest warns Venable to tread carefully around her fantasies, but he wants the letters at any cost, even Tina's sanity. Written by
Henry James based the story on an anecdote he had heard when he was in Florence, Italy, in 1879. "Claire" Clairmont, the half-sister of Percy Bysshe Shelley's wife Mary Shelley and the mother of Lord Byron's daughter Allegra, was still alive and related how an unscrupulous Shelley devotee had posed as a lodger in order to find any unpublished papers. After the aged Claire died, her niece offered the papers to him, but at a price. See more »
When Lewis rescues Juliana from the fire, Juliana's stunt double can be seen grabbing onto Lewis and helping him carry 'her' out. See more »
No need to detail the plot since others have done it better than I can.
Once again I'm reminded that Susan Hayward was one of Hollywood's finest actresses despite her glamorous good looks. Here she does triple duty while under the spell of an ossified aunt (an unrecognizable Moorehead) and, of course, a darkly haunted mansion. One minute she's severely repressed Tina; the next she's a deluded but happy Tina; and finally she's a liberated Tina, who's happily her true self. The versatile actress manages all three persuasively, though repressed Tina in her severe hair bun almost had me under the couch.
If Tina's having trouble with her identity, so's Venable (Cummings) who's at the mansion under false pretenses. But once he's scoped out a flowing-haired Tina, he's having trouble deciding whether he's really a sneaky publisher on a lucrative mission or just another hormonally driven ankle-chaser. Sunny actor Cummings may seem an odd choice for roaming dark mansions, still he low-keys throughout, allowing the story's Gothic merits to remain uppermost.
And what great atmosphere the staging produces. Sure, events never leave the soundstage, yet that move allows full artistic control of visual effects, which are as much a movie presence here as the performers themselves. And, oh yes, mustn't overlook poor Joan Loring as the repressed servant Amelia. Hers is a movingly soulful performance that at times is almost tearful. Too bad her character track just sort of vanishes to no conclusion. And that's a downside in the script, as John Archer's rather villainous character is also abruptly abandoned for no apparent purpose. It may be that the screenplay tried to adapt too much of the Henry James novel and ended up cutting some corners
All in all, this is vintage Hollywood hitting on at least seven cylinders despite somewhat derivative material. And a lot of that success I think is owed to outstanding producer Walter Wanger, a position in the production chain that's too often overlooked.
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