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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.