You can lead a whore to culture…

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MOSS ROSE is a moderately pleasing Gothic thriller, fairly predictable but enlivened by some odd casting and writing — the biggest fault in the film is also its most interesting feature. Faults are rarely as enjoyable as this one.

Peggy Cummins, the Welsh whirlwind, is Rose, a music hall chorus girl whose friend is murdered by a mysterious maniac — and by the corpse, a single flower, identified by horticulturally-inclined sleuth Vincent Price, as  a moss rose. Having reason to suspect Victor Mature, Rose behaves rather oddly — rather than rushing to Uncle Vinnie and spilling the proverbial beans, she blackmails Big Victor into inviting her down to his country home for a couple of weeks, under the very noses of his mother (Ethel Barrymore) and bride-to-be (Patricia Medina).

This is odd behaviour for a heroine. We expect Peggy to turn amateur gumshoe, following the bloody trail to the lair of the killer. Instead she exploits the crime for her own selfish ends, seeking to learn the airs and graces from miscast aristocrat Victor. The movie is like MY FAIR LADY with a body count. And indeed, the corpses keep coming, rapidly reducing the list of suspects to the point where even Scotland Yard might be able to figure it out.

Peggy Cummins is never less than endearing (except in GUN CRAZY where she’s flat-out sexy and psychopathic), and here her cuteness is enhanced by a cocker-knee accent which she rather struggles with: not that she can’t do it, but you’re conscious of the sheer effort of remembering to drop every single “H,” while adding others in so that “H” is pronounced “Haitch.” Actually, that’s how it would be pronounced in a well-ordered universe. It’s ridiculous that “H” begins with a silent “H.”

Our leading lady being a blackmailer could make for an interesting plot point if the movie had any plans for how to exploit it. If Peggy turned out to be the killer (she isn’t)… if she was a cold-blooded vamp (she isn’t supposed to be: she makes several comments about her poor dear murdered friend, invested with all the emotion actress and writers can muster)… if she was secretly working for the police (she isn’t)… One expects, in the days when the Production Code reigned supreme, that P.C. would get some kind of ironic comeuppance for her actions, but even on that score the film shows no signs of acknowledging the oddity of her scheme. Quite apart from the morality angle, it’s a little peculiar that she doesn’t feel herself to be in any danger from the man she believes murdered her friend.

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I was reminded of the Douglas Sirk noir SHOCKPROOF, based on a mangled Sam Fuller script, where the hero is a parole officer who falls for his client, helping her jump bail, leave the state, and steal a car. Despite the Production Code, all ends happily for the disgraceful pair: after they are returned to the long arm of the law, no charges are made. Sometimes the need for a happy ending could outweigh the need for crime not paying. Some filmmakers worked hard at finding clever ways to flaunt the Code, but others apparently solved the problem with sheer stupidity. SHOCKPROOF and MOSS ROSE can both pass for morality tales if you simply fail to think about them.

Direction (adequate) by Gregory Ratoff, script (odd) by Niven Busch, Tom Reed and the great Jules Furthman, whose weird hand can perhaps be detected in these oddities.

Another minor pleasure the film offers is this bridge —

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— recognizable as the same one depicted in Fritz Lang’s MAN HUNT. A set which Lang claimed did not exist. Having been forbidden by Zanuck to shoot the bridge scene, Lang set about finding a way to do it in secret and for free.

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Frame grab from The Auteurs’ Notebook.

“All we had were cobblestones on the street. Then I said, ‘Ben, I saw a railing around here that looks like a bridge.’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Does it cost anything?’ He said, ‘No, that you can have.’ But we needed two, so I said, ‘How much would it cost to make a second one–at my expense?’ I think it was forty dollars. I talked with Arthur Miller–he was a genius as a cameraman–and he said it was possible to light in such a way that the background gradually faded away in the fog, so we didn’t even need a backdrop. We had the cobblestone street and we had the sidewalk, on which we put these two railings. We had a lamppost in the foreground, then a second lamppost, and we hung progressively diminishing lightbulbs–say, a 100-watt, then 80, then 50, and so on; and over the whole thing we put a little London fog. We started at four o’clock in the morning–just Ben, Arthur Miller and myself–and we fixed up this whole set. […] I shot the scene and Zanuck didn’t say a damned word about it. All he said was, ‘WHERE THE HELL’S THAT SET? I want to talk to Silvey! You keep that set and we’ll shoot a whole picture on it.’ ‘I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Zanuck,’ said Ben, ‘there was no set.'”

Quote from Lang interview in Who the Devil Made It by Peter Bogdanovich.

Not for the first time, we find Lang bending the facts, although the set is undoubtedly a forced perspective illusion and there’s no backdrop. It also looks like there might only be ONE “fence” — we never see two at a time.

11 Responses to “You can lead a whore to culture…”

  1. Fascinating. Don’t know this one at all, and I adore Peggy Cummins — as much for Curse of the Demon as Gun Crazy.

    Moss Rose fits in with our recent review of Gaslightesque Gothics — Ivy, etc.

  2. Amazing. The scene between Sanders and Bennett in MANHUNT is made memorable in large part because of the bridge, with the lighting and fog to enhance it. I’m reminded of Lewton’s use of the staircase in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, although I’m sure there are many such instances in filmmaking history. Peggy Cummins was Zanuck’s first choice to play the lead in FOREVER AMBER, but after two months of filming DFZ nixed it, stating that Peggy lacked the air of sophistication the role called for. While initially disappointed, she was ultimately relieved when the film ended up getting slammed by the critics. Her stateside film career nearly began after signing a contract with Warner Bros. in 1940, but the onset of WWII put the kibosh on that. She remained in the UK where during the war she spent a great deal of time performing on stage.

  3. Lewton’s films recycled a lot — the ship in The Ghost Ship being stock footage from King Kong.

    Very sweet interview with PC here.

    I think she only saw Night of the Demon for the first time a few years ago! Next I want to see that Joe Mankiewicz film she’s in.

    Moss Rose is indeed another gaslight melodrama, with Big Victor looking rather out of place. Even if they explain his accent, his trademark raincoat seems unsuitable.

  4. How wonderful, for the 83-year-old Peggy to be sitting watching GUN CRAZY with a room full of appreciative filmgoers, and being able to admit that they did indeed enjoy the film. The interview is from just a little over a week ago (August 13)!

  5. I love the idea of her backtracking to look at the poster and thinking, “Isn’t that ME?”

  6. Yeah, great stuff. So you mentioned Mankiewicz’s ESCAPE (1948), with Peggy, Rex Harrison, and your old friend William Hartnell. A hard one to find it seems, another Twentieth Century Fox release. They’ve been releasing so many things these past few years, their noir catalogue, Lang’s MANHUNT, it would be nice if they got around to this, and MOSS ROSE, and THE BRASHER DOUBLOON.

  7. The Mankiewicz I’m thinking of is called The Late George Apley, with Ronald Colman. But Escape looks fascinating, and does indeed seem to be impossible to get hold of at present.

  8. Re the letter H and the pronunciation ‘haitch’ – somehow or another, in Ireland that became the subject of a sectarian divide, so that during our most recent bout of troubles, one sure way to get killed was to fail a spelling test – i.e., you would be asked to spell, for instance, Hitchcock, and if you said ‘Aitch Eye Tee See Aitch…’ it would single you out as a member of one community, ‘Haitch Eye Tee See Haitch…’ as a card carrying member of the alternative. Digression over.

  9. A modern shibboleth !

    When I visited Belfast for a screening of Cry For Bobo, somebody had just been shot for hanging bunting. Bobo seemed like the right film to be showing — an inane plea for tolerance.

  10. Better… and slightly shorter.

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