Thursday, 27 November 2008

Ladies in Retirement (1941)

Somehow it is a lot more fun to write about older films or modern oddities than current releases where my brain feels saturated with other critics' reactions. That these films that I choose remain relatively unknown and/or hard to come by is a definite part of their appeal. I viewed this one originally on television some years back and took a copy or it would join so many other worthwhile films which were never widely available on video and which certainly haven't surfaced on DVD. I should like to add here that certain DVD producers, especially those with studio affiliations, would do better to look to their back catalogues rather than to some of the modern dreck that they churn out!

This movie, like "Night Must Fall" before it, is based on a stage play and shares the same creepy sensibility and sense of Gothic dread. Ida Lupino takes on the role played on stage by Flora Robson as the housekeeper to a vain old actress (Isabel Elsom) living in an isolated cottage on the English moors. When she receives word that her two looney-tunes sisters, played by Elsa Lancester and Edith Barrett, are to be thrown out of their London digs, she convinces Elsom to let them stay for a few days. When a few days turns into six weeks, Elsom is up to her ears with their nuttiness and issues her ultimatum to Lupino, who promptly murders her boss rather than lose control of her siblings. To this mix one must add Lupino's ne'er-do-well nephew Louis Hayward (who has previously "touched" Elsom for a loan to cover his bank clerk misappropriations) who arrives on the scene wanted by the police and who quite soon becomes suspicious about Elsom's disappearance, and Evelyn Keyes as the maidservant who succumbs to his swarmy charms.

Lupino was probably too young for this role but plays it with great conviction. The daughter of an English music-hall star, she went to Hollywood in her early twenties and surfaced in a number of memorable parts which never got quite the critical attention they deserved. Later on she turned her hand to directing and turned out several better-than-B movies, which again remain largely overlooked. Lanchester and Barrett (in her first film role) are engagingly dotty as the two sisters; mind you, did Lancester ever play anything other than eccentrics? The director, Charles Vidor (no relation to King Vidor) keeps a tight rein on the production and even manages to retain our interest without opening out the tale from its cottage setting; the film was sufficiently well-made to garner two Academy Awards for art direction and music. Some film trivia information for those who care about this sort of thing: Vidor was married to Lupino at the time and Hayward and the much-married Keyes subsequently wed.
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