How to Seduce Joan Fontaine, #45 of 1,000,000,000

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Buy her a Borgia handbag.

IVY (1947) is one of those movies where everything and everybody comes together in a frabjous fusion of talents and creates something really special: it ought to be far better known. A gaslight melodrama about a ruthless female poisoner who simply MUST have nice things, it made me feel as if someone had cut me open and inserted a big cake made of happiness.

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The principle underrated talent here is Sam Wood, whose career encompasses all kinds of nice stuff, from pre-code SHEIK knock-off THE BARBARIAN, to the Marx Brothers classic A DAY AT THE RACES. He’s kind of an anti-auteur, though, since his work usually effaces any recognizable directorial signature in favour of foregrounding performers and script, and darts about between genres in an efficient but anonymous fashion. But his small-town diptych, KING’S ROW and it’s opposite, OUR TOWN, are nevertheless very impressive entertainments. Perhaps the splendid visuals in each are more the work of Menzies, but Wood serves them up with genuine filmic aplomb.

Both movies were collaborations with the great production designer William Cameron Menzies, who also produced IVY. His monumental compositional sense is all over it. As if that weren’t enough, the film also boasts Russell Metty (TOUCH OF EVIL, WRITTEN ON THE WIND) on camera, music by Daniele Amphitheatrof (LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN) and a screenplay by regular Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett. I do actually wonder if some of the British Hitchcocks upon which Bennett worked would have been improved if he’s been the sole writer: this movie and NIGHT OF THE DEMON show the hand of a skilled and witty scribe who didn’t need any help to craft a delicious story. (IVY is based on a novel by mrs. Belloc Lowndes, author of The Lodger.)

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We begin in a splendidly artificial suburban street, where the entrance of a black cat, crossing our heroine’s path, seems intended to add a but of naturalism, but just ends up emphasizing the theatrical nature of this world. Our heroine — Ivy — Joan Fontaine — enters a cramped little residence in a furtive manner, paying a guinea to the little man who seems to be some kind of proprietor. The whole thing has the feel of a backstreet abortionist’s, until the little man sits at an upright piano and begins to supply mood music. You don’t get that sort of ambient care when Denholm Elliott’s guddling about in your innards with a rusty coat hanger.

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This establishment is in fact the home of a fortune teller, Mrs. Thrawn (a good Scots word meaning crazy/difficult), embodied by a remarkably restrained Una O’Connor, who proceeds to gaze into the beyond and tell Joan her future. “Does it have screeching in it?” I wondered. It does, but not from Una: comic maid duties in this film are performed by Rosalind Ivan, a fabulous character actress I’d never before encountered.

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VERY striking, vertically deranged composition introducing Madame Una, which is not only bold and eerie in itself — part of a breathlessly hushed yet manically intense shuffling of giant ECUs in this menacing yet domestic little cameo — but totally SMART, because it will chime later with a similar weird POV shot later…

Armed with a set of predictions, Joan goes forth to put them into action: she’s been advised to ditch her present lover, as another, richer one will be coming along. She doesn’t know quite what to do about her husband, other than passively suggest he might be happier with a divorce, but it’s nothing doing. The romantic quadrangle eventually adds up like so:

Ivy Lexton: wants to be rich.

Jervis Lexton: Ivy’s impoverished husband. Devoted to her, but quite incapable of offering her the luxury she desires.

Dr. Roger Gretorex: her current lover, equally devoted but only a bit wealthier. But he does have access to irritant poison.

Miles Rushworth: fabulously wealthy, and obviously drawn to Ivy, even if he is supposed to be marrying someone else. Come to think of it, this could be viewed as a romantic pentangle.

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Miles is played by Herbert Marshall, who didn’t always have the best luck with women onscreen — he was married to Bette Davis in two William Wylers, and he looks set to walk into Ivy’s poisonous clutches, only the other two chumps must be gotten rid off. They’re only played by Richard Ney and Patric Knowle, so can be considered disposable. Ivy conceives the idea of doing one in and framing the other.

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Here you go: another beautifully peculiar bottom-heavy composition introduces the POV shot of the irritant poison (every doctor keeps a large supply — it’s very handy), tying it in to the predictions of Madame Una, as Joan F. interprets them.

It’s really too entertaining, and if you haven’t seen it, you must, even though it’s hard to get. Write to your MP or something. Any movie where Joan F. gets to play a bitch-goddess is tops in my book, and it’s even better here since she plays the role with all the shy, shrinking mannerisms of her roles in REBECCA and SUSPICION, the flipside of those characters being the passive-aggressive succubus virago. Her shoulders go up as if trying to shield her ears from the wicked world, her head tilts slightly to one side as if she’s trying to wriggle out through a crack in the universe, and her eyes roll up just very slightly, escaping contact with those terrible people who want things from her, and consulting with the fiendish little brain concealed beneath that bland and beautiful brow.

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Throw in the awesome Sarah Allgood as a virtuous maid and Cedric Hardwicke as a detective — “You know the case is officially over, so I’m not allowed to think… But today’s my day off.” I think I’ve been guilty of badly underestimating Sir Cedric over the years. He always seemed like a bit of an old stick in ROPE, but he’s drolly amusing in Wet Saturday, an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents drawn from a story by the great John Collier, he does a smart cockney plod here, and so I’m going to keep an eye on him this time in ROPE…

In this movie he doesn’t get to wear specs, so we can enjoy his eye-bags more fully. They’re not bulging valises like those appended to the orbs of Philip Baker Hall, nor are they quite the thin, almost translucent arcs inscribed beneath Henry Daniell’s optical apparatus, which resemble a little domino mask cut from his own skin. Cedric’s bags are like little polythene sacks which have had all the air sucked out of them, yet retain a certain three-dimensional heft around the edges. Apparently he stored his snuff in them when he wasn’t using his face for acting.

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30 Responses to “How to Seduce Joan Fontaine, #45 of 1,000,000,000”

  1. Produced by Interwood Productions, released and distributed by Universal, I’m wondering if they’re the ones who should be approached re. its release on DVD. If it’s as good as you say it is, and I don’t doubt your assessment as your enthusiasm is infectious, then I hope someone with clout reads this post and takes action. As I enjoy movies of this type (call them period noir perhaps, from THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY to HANGOVER SQUARE and THE LODGER to LADIES IN RETIREMENT) I look forward to the day when I can finally catch up with it. A subdued Una?

  2. David Boxwell Says:

    Ivan was memorably the castrating shrew wife of Edward G. Robinson in Lang’s SCARLET STREET. And Fontaine plalyed a butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth bitch in Ray’s BORN TO BE BAD (50).

  3. David Boxwell Says:

    Two other great “Victorian noirs” from the mid-40s: Siodmak’s THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (45) and Tourneur’s EXPERIMENT PERILOUS (44). It seems to have been a mini-trend . . .

  4. David Boxwell Says:

    IVY showed up in rotation on this side of the pond on American Movie Classics in the early 90s. It’s as compelling as DC says, as I recall, so I will dig up my videotape and give it a second viewing.

  5. I think Gaslight can be credited with sparking this trendlet. Lord knows when anyone will get around to releasing it. Might TCM get their hands on it?

    “It certainly was!” is how Nick Ray responded to any mention of Born to be Bad, but it’s quite a nice film, with an amusing ending. Good to see the bad girl get away with it. I won’t give away what happens in Ivy because it’s pretty suspenseful.

  6. Another darkly delicious film I’ve always wanted to see is John Farrow’s ALIAS NICK BEAL (1949), a noir take on the Faust legend with Ray Milland as The Devil and Thomas Mitchell as the one he entices. A new print will be shown at BAM (the Brooklyn Academy of Music) on September 2. Hopefully this one will also find its way to DVD in the not-too-distant future. There’s a clip on YouTube from the film, which admittedly is rather murky, but its atmospheric virtues still shine through.

  7. So glad you’ve happened upon Ivy. Stumbled over it a number of years ago and was greatly surprised. My initial interest was simply seeing something with Joan Fontaine that I hadn’t heard of. But the story and the treatment turned out to be exceptional. It’s definitely Gaslight influenced.

  8. I guess I’ll have to write to my MP (or whatever equivalent we have here)… only for the names in the cast make it quite appetizing.

    And, well, if only to see Una out of her usual cast, and to see what Rosalind Ivan could do apart from her spectacularlt bitchy shrew of The Suspect

  9. Since this is Rope week I really must watch Thorold Dickenson’s version of Gaslight, which Patrick Hamilton much preferred to the US remake. Though of course, Cukor had the star power, especially in Bergman.

  10. True, but Dickson had Anton Walbrook.

  11. This is true. Walbrook versus Charles Boyer is a tough choice, but I’d have to plump for AW in the end.

  12. I remember seeing this in the middle of the night on AMC and, when not nodding, thinking that it looked *gorgeous*. Isn’t there a notable scene with kisses and fireworks at a pavillion?

    The best people, including Alec Wilder, recommend the “Ivy” song that Hoagy Carmichael wrote. Is it on the soundtrack, or is this one of those cases where a song was written as a means of promoting the picture (cf. Wrubel & Magidson’s “Gone with the Wind” and Robin & Rainger’s “Easy Living”)?

    Another film in the ’40s Victorian Noir cycle would be “So Evil, My Love” — which I’ve never seen, but always been curious about. (And, yes, I do realize that it’s a part of the recent NYC “Brit Noir” festival). Don’t have much faith in Lewis Allen as a director, “Uninvited” notwithstanding,” but the combination of Milland plus Geraldine Fitzgerald plus Hal Wallis sounds promising.

  13. David Boxwell Says:

    Lewis Allen, as the esteemed David Ehrenstein will forcefully argue (with me doing backup), deserves Pantheon membership for whatever he contributed to that sui generis Technicolor pansexual noir masterpiece DESERT FURY (47).

  14. Well, The Uninvited is terrific so I’d be inclined to look favourably on his membership. And So Evil has a really smashing cast.

    I guess in the gaslight stakes there’s also Sleep, My Love, an almost straight rip-off of Gaslight, directed by Sirk and with a great bit with George Coulouris as an alarming shrink.

    Don’t think the Hoagy sing is in there, at least not sung, although the score is superb, with a special “poison” theme. But the pavilion and fireworks moment is indeed present.

  15. Indeed Mr. Boxwell! He also directed The Uninvited. He’s definitely a “Subject For Further Research.”

  16. One detail that I forgot to point out about “So Evil” is that it’s taken from a novel by the same author, Joseph Shearing, who inspired “Moss Ross.” She — the name was a pseudonym for Marjorie Bowen — seems to’ve been a specialist in this sort of thing. There’s a positive quote from Graham Greene on her Wikipedia page.

    Another Shearing adaptation: “The Mark of Cain,” with Eric Portman and Sally Gray.

  17. Arthur S. Says:

    Martin Scorsese who’s a big fan of Thorold Dickinson is open about his preference for the Dickinson over the Cukor citing the former’s lack of sentimentality as a deal breaker.

  18. Sally Gray’s adorable in They Made Me a Fugitive, so I’ll have to watch out for Mark of Cain. Eric Portman too! I’ve read some of Marjorie Bowen’s ghost stories and they’re very strong, psychological and horrible.

    OK, definitely Gaslight this week. I keep missing Dickenson’s The Arsenal Stadium Mystery on Channel 4 here. I caught the ending once and it was fun. And I have his war film, Next of Kin, lined up too.

  19. Arthur S. Says:

    My favourite Dickinson is of course, THE QUEEN OF SPADES which has a very intense Anton Walbrook performance.

  20. Yes, that one’s incredible. And TD only took it over at the last minute. I do want to see Secret People, with the young Audrey Hepburn. TD also directed her screen test for Roman Holiday, which I posted here.

  21. david wingrove Says:

    I’ve always been curious about IVY, but am now desperate to see it!

    Evil Joan has always struck me as far more convincing than Sweet & Innocent Joan – not only in BORN TO BE BAD but also in the marvellous SERENADE, where she plays Mario Lanza’s manipulative ‘patron’. In the original James M Cain novel, her character was a gay man, but was rewritten for the film to get round the censor.

    To tell the truth, the one thing more enjoyable than Evil Joan is her sister, Evil Olivia – see the bad twin in DARK MIRROR and Cousin Miriam in HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE. Life does not get much better!

  22. I’ll supply you with a copy when next we meet. Ivy is top ten Joan material, and I think it even tops the Evilivia selections you cite. Serenade is another movie on my to-do list: I had a great time getting into Mann, need to have another swoop and catch the items that eluded me first time.

  23. Arthur S. Says:

    I want to see SECRET PEOPLE too, keep me in the loop about that. Lindsay Anderson wrote a making-of book about that film, I believe.

    Recently the Israeli film which Dickinson made, HILL 24 DOES NOT ANSWER(or something like that) came out on DVD in the US.

  24. Oh, I’ll keep my eyes open for both of those. The Israeli film seems like a fascinating curio at the very least.

  25. Arthur S. Says:

    What is with British directors and early Israeli cinema? Cavalcanti went there and the Archers planned to make a film there? It seems like India in the wake of independence where a number of filmmakers around the world came to make movies in India.

  26. Tony Williams Says:

    IVY is available on iuffer.com. Also, I think Walbrook definitely beats Boyer in GASLIGHT as he has a much better sense of menacing intensity, very similar to Eric Portman with whom he starred in 49th PARALLEL.

    I’ve heard the argument that the US version is superior and that Dickinson’s film should have been totally destroyed without any loss to film history. I can not go along with this, apart from my belief that no film should be deliberately destroyed. As well as the acting GASLIGHT is a great ecample of British film noir/melodrama.

  27. Apart from anything else, I can’t imagine any self-respecting Cukor enthusiast not wanting to compare the two films.

    I guess the British wanted to support Israel in those early days.

    I heard from my friend Lawrie that Michael Powell screened the first Indian film he could get hold of. This would have been around 1946-7. So I suppose Indian cinema was completely unseen in Britain until after the war.

  28. Hey David, are you still looking for The Secret People? It was on Turner Classic Movies earlier this month and I had asked my father to record it for me, so I could send you a copy. I got La fin du jour during your Duvivier giveaway so I’d like to return the favor if I can!

  29. Thanks! Yes, I’d be thrilled to see that movie, have been meaning to catch more Dickinson. I shall email you with address.

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