Thursday, 28 April 2011

Corridor of Mirrors (1948)

I thought that just about every British movie -- even the most obscure -- has been shown on television here at least once, if not umpteen times, and I therefore was a little surprised that the above film has not been telecast -- at least not in the past 32 years that I've been keeping  records (!).  I noticed that a print from the BFI's National Archives was being screened on the South Bank yesterday and its description and credentials made me very keen to view it.  So off we went...

It was definitely something of a curiosity, brilliant in part, but sadly lacking in one important area.  Described in the BFI's programme as one of British cinema's weirdest 'noirs', the film does not slot readily into what I would describe as 'noir'.  Rather it is a fine example of an atmospheric Gothic tale translated into the period in which it was made.  It marked the debut of director Terence Young who went on to make the best-known Sean Connery Bond movies and it is a surprisingly accomplished piece of baroque story-telling from such an inexperienced hand.  Eric Portman -- a stalwart among British leading men (with an ever-so-cultured voice) from the mid-thirties to the mid-sixties -- plays a wealthy eccentric with a love of beauty in all of its forms.  He becomes obsessed with a woman he meets in a nightclub, who he believes is the reincarnation of a woman he loved in another lifetime.  She is attracted in turn by his courtly behaviour, ornate mansion, and generous gifts, but avoids giving herself to him physically.  There are wonderful baroque scenes as she follows a white cat down a long mirrored corridor, finding behind each door sumptuously gowned wax dummies, and eventually chancing upon an aging retainer (a scary turn from character actress Barbara Mullen) who spins tales of Portman's decadent dalliances.

The big problem with this film from my point of view is the nondescript performance from its lead actress, Edana Romney, who also had a hand in the screenplay.  She previously appeared in minor roles in two early forties flicks and this is her one and only starring role in a film; her few subsequent appearances were on television, before she disappeared from the scene.  She is neither much of a beauty nor much of an actress for that matter, and one can only conjecture how she came to be cast in this fairly lavish production.  One wonders whose girlfriend she was...

Despite her disappointing turn, the film affords many pleasures and occasional chills, as the tale leaps forward and back to include a lavish Venetian costume ball in the grounds of Portman's estate, a sordid murder for which he is condemned, and a denouement nicely photographed amongst the wax denizens of Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors. Comparisons have been drawn between this film and Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast" as well as to the role-grooming of "Vertigo", but despite its incidential pleasures "Corridor of Mirrors" is not in the same league as either film.  Perhaps with a different female lead it might have become a more satisfying bit of sinister hokum.
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