September 21, 2017

Classic film: The Uninvited (1944, dir. Lewis Allen)

On holiday, a music critic and sometime composer, Roderick Fitzgerald, and his sister Pamela (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey), discover a lonely house on the rocky coast of Cornwall. Entranced with its romantic charm and seeking a change from London, the urbane sophisticates buy it from a curmudgeonly neighbor (Donald Crisp), and befriend his twenty-year-old granddaughter, Stella (Gail Russell).

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Rod and Pam soon learn that Windward House is determined to exact more than the purchase price from them and their new young friend. The three are drawn into a bizarre romantic triangle from beyond the grave. Set in 1937, The Uninvited is a perennial favorite mystery film among viewers as well as among directors as varied as Martin Scorsese and Sydney Pollack, and its elegant, quiet, and richly atmospheric strangeness can be a perfect antidote to loud hyperaction, monsters, and mayhem. It’s a classy and potent reminder of how far we can be taken with a mysteriously locked room, a complex family secret, cold stirrings of air, the odd sound in the night, and an occasional wafting scent of mimosa.

It’s a refreshing reminder, too, of why many directors today say they wish they could shoot a film in black and white, and why others such as Scorsese, Woody Allen, Alexander Payne, and Tim Burton, have done so. Charles Lang received a best cinematography Oscar nomination for The Uninvited; it is 1940s black and white at it sharpest, lushest, and most expert, evincing psychological shadings not always possible with color.

English-born director Lewis Allen’s credits would eventually include the classic gaslight noir So Evil My Love (1948), and Suddenly (1954). Neither gothic nor noir, violent nor melodramatic, it is striking how often The Uninvited defies the conventions of the haunted-house genre. The screenplay, by Frank Partos and Dodie Smith, has glints of humor, two developing love interests, and sunlight to balance both the shudders of the Cornish seaside evenings and the conflicted emotional shadows of the emerging backstory.

The supporting cast also includes author-actor Cornelia Otis Skinner in an arch but fascinating tour-de-force as a sanitorium director and girlhood friend of Stella’s deceased mother. Skinner laces her character’s chill villainy with suggested undertones of madness and repressed homoeroticism.

Milland won the best actor Oscar a year later for his performance in Billy Wilder’s Lost Weekend. Here his knack for light, worldly-wise humor and skeptical intelligence is deployed early on, but his doubting Roderick enables our own suspension of disbelief as increasingly he is able to take less assurance in irony and empirical proofs. Ruth Hussey, one of the most likable actors of the ‘40s and ‘50s—witty, chic, but always down-to-earth—was often cast as a wisecracker (as in her Oscar-nominated reporter role in 1940’s The Philadelphia Story). Pamela is a more rounded character, approaching the eerie phenomena with practicality and Stella’s family history with an open heart. As siblings, Milland and Hussey are companionable foils, and they infuse the various moods of the film with a credible consistency.

Turn the lights down, turn off your phones, open a bottle of something good, and cozy in.

by Hadley Hury

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