A PLACE OF ONE’S OWN — the genteel title suggests that this ghost story is going to be more DEAD OF NIGHT than THE FRIGHTENERS — in fact, it’s even more restrained than that. Made in 1945, the same year as Ealing’s scarifying ghost omnibus, it’s the product of the notoriously racy (for their day) Gainsborough Pictures, yet the supposedly sedate Ealing made by far the more overt, shamelessly terrifying film. But the lesser-known one does have its points of interest.
The film gathers together several of the studio’s top stars — Margaret Lockwood, the Wicked Lady herself, a very young and skinny Dennis Price, and James Mason, who plays way older than his real age in a slightly comical wig and whiskers, for no reason other than it’s the best role and it allows him to use a version of his native Yorkshire accent for once (Mason could be very good with accents — Paul Duane tells me his Irish one in THE RECKLESS MOMENT is pitch-perfect). Retired businessman Mason and his wife Barbara Mullen, who lost both their children in infancy, move to the country and buy one of those suspiciously cheap houses one is always coming across in ghost stories. Then they engage Lockwood as a lady’s companion. And then the haunting begins, and Lockwood is possessed by the spirit of a dead, possibly murdered, former inhabitant…
The film, from a novel by Osbert Sitwell, is a little inert in its narrative — people are always saying “We must do something!” and the ghost, reportedly manifesting via the servant’s speaking tube, says “Fetch Doctor Marsham,” in act one but it’s act three before anybody thinks to attempt this — but director Bernard Knowles, a former director of photography for Hitchcock (THE 39 STEPS, SABOTAGE, etc) works hard to compensate for this with complex, fluid and dynamic camera movement, taking frequent advantage of the large mansion set, with its staircase and surrounding gallery. The tracking shots and crane shots, the whip pans and elaborate blocking of the performers, is quite dazzling. Sadly, I get the impression Knowles abandoned this approach pretty quickly — I recall nothing of interest in the other Gainsborough picture of his I’ve looked at, JASSY.
Knowles is doing a Scorsese before there was a Scorsese to do!
Marsham, when he shows up, is impersonated by Ernest Thesiger, which is very good news, but his appearance is practically subliminal — a minute of screen time with not a single closeup and most of his lines delivered with back to camera. And the pay-off is something that would probably work better in a compendium short story rather than a feature. One might also regret that Ms. Lockwood’s possession falls rather short of the gold standard set by Linda Blair with the active collusion of Mercedes McCambridge. MADONNA OF THE SEVEN MOONS, another Gainsborough flick that year, used split personality to allow demure Phyllis Calvert to unleash the kind of pent-up passions the studio delighted in unleashing, and offered the British public what was likely their first cinematic glimpse of what could be taken for a female orgasm. Whereas here, Lockwood falls deathly ill, and under the influence of the ghost, who is also deathly ill (or, rather, is reliving her own mortal illness), resulting in one layer of wanness being overlaid upon another — a shame, with such a vibrant performer to hand.
Interestingly, both Knowles and MADONNA helmer Arthur Crabtree went rather psychotronic in their late careers, with Crabtree bringing us FIEND WITHOUT A FACE and HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, which neither Ealing nor Gainsborough ever dreamt of, and Knowles taking charge of FROZEN ALIVE (cryogenics) and SPACEFLIGHT IC-1 (see yesterday’s posting).