Thursday, 11 March 2010

Crimes at the Dark House (1940)

Crimes at the Dark House is another completely over-the-top Tod Slaughter melodrama from Alpha Video’s Tod Slaughter boxed set. This 1940 British production has a slightly more resectable literary source than some of Slaughter’s other films - it was based on Wilkie Collins’s superb 1860 sensation novel The Woman In White.

The novel was actually filmed twice during the 1940s, the second version being a moderately star-studded 1948 Warner Brothers production with Alexis Smith, Eleanor Parker, Agnes Moorehead and Sydney Greenstreet. The Hollywood version is much more polished and genteel and is admirable in its own way and is definitely worth seeing. The Tod Slaughter version plays the story as pure melodrama, but it’s an approach that works extremely well with the source material and although it’s much more outrageous it’s perhaps even more enjoyable than the American film.

Tod Slaughter is Sir Percival Glyde. The young baronet had set off twenty years earlier to the Australian goldfields to make his fortune. But right from the start we know that the real Sir Percival was murdered in Australia, and that the character played by Slaughter is a wicked impostor. He’s also a very unhappy impostor when he returns to England to find that he’s inherited an estate mortgaged to the hilt and a huge assortment of other debts. The net value of the state is considerable less than zero.

But all is not lost. An arrangement had been made by the respective families years earlier that Sir Percival would marry Laura Fairlie. Laura has no desire to go through with this marriage, having fallen in love with her drawing instructor, but her uncle and guardian is determined that the wedding should go forward. In truth her uncle, a foolish and self-indulgent professional invalid, is simply anxious to get his two nieces off his hands as quickly as possible.

Laura is horrified by the prospect of her impending marriage, but neither she nor her sister Marion can think of any way of avoiding this calamity. In the interim Sir Percival is pleasuring himself with one of the chambermaids. When the chambermaid falls pregnant she reminds him of his promise to marry her. The villainous baronet arranges to meet her near the old boat-house to discuss their wedding plans, and the unfortunate servant is never heard from again. Sir Percival has other problems as well. The equally villainous Dr Fosco turns up on his doorstep, accompanied by a Mrs Catterick who claims that Sir Percival is the father of her child, born shortly after his departure for Australia. Of course she recognises at once that whoever this man is he is not Sir Percival Glyde. Dr Fosco persuades her that rather than exposing him, a spot of blackmail might be more profitable. And she needs the money to keep her insane daughter in Dr Fosco’s lunatic asylum.

The insane daughter, Anne, escapes with the intention of destroying the perfidious aristocrat who ruined her mother’s life and reputation. Meanwhile Sir Percival arranges a meeting with Mrs Catterick to discuss matters. He suggest the old boat-house as a suitable meeting place. Sir Percival has hatched a very diabolical scheme indeed, based on the extraordinary coincidence that Anne Catterick is the spitting image of Laura Fairlie, or Lady Glyde as she is now.

The plot becomes more and more far-fetched, as it does in the novel. That’s where this movie’s very melodramatic treatment of the material becomes a decided advantage. Tod Slaughter plays Sir Percival as a stereotypical villain of melodrama, complete with a very nice line in evil maniacal laughter. The whole thing becomes a complete romp, and it’s all great fun.

Sylvia Marriott is an attractive and likeable heroine. The whole cast overacts, which is exactly as it should be.

For a 1940 British film there’s a surprising amount of sexual innuendo. Partly this is due to Tod Slaughter’s amazing ability to deliver lines in a leering and suggestive manner. His lascivious excitement at the thought of bedding his reluctant bride is particularly amusing in a depraved sort of way.

The plot is a maze of bizarre coincidences, mistaken identities and ingenious and spectacularly wicked conspiracies. And it has a truly dastardly villain. It’s all highly entertaining.

The Alpha Video DVD is about what you expect from that company, but it’s quite watchable.

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