Archive for November 8, 2017

Forbidden Divas: A Villain in the Villa or A Room with a Screw

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2017 by dcairns

David Wingrove’s back! With another Forbidden Diva piece, although, as he put it to me, “Perhaps it’s not really a ‘diva’ movie (Margaret Johnston and Dulcie Gray, anyone?) but the director Leslie Arliss seems like a candidate!” Now read on ~

A Villain in the Villa or A Room with a Screw

“It might be good to have a man about the house.”

– Margaret Johnston, A Man about the House

Do you adore films where genteel Victorian ladies feel their hearts start to throb with genteel and tumultuous passions? Do you revel in swarthy Latin seducers, their dark curls aglow with Brylcreem, their bronze torsos a-glisten with spray-on studio sweat? Do you yearn, above all, to travel to exotic back-projected locales where roistering peasants stomp riotously – the strains of a wild tarantella – on vast and overflowing vats of grapes? Or where palatial villas cling precariously to a cliff-edge, while the waves pound orgasmically, over and over, on the rocks below?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, A Man about the House (1947) may well be some sort of High Camp Holy Grail.

Two demure Victorian sisters (Margaret Johnston and Dulcie Gray) have been forced to live in ‘reduced circumstances’ and run a girls’ school in the wilds of suburban London. We experience their horror as their pupils play bum notes on the piano and, occasionally, use an incorrect form of the subjunctive! One day they receive an inheritance from their eccentric and long-vanished Uncle Ludovic, who moved to Italy and became “an artist” – and whose name cannot be mentioned in polite circles. (The exact nature of his offence is left to our imagination; perhaps not a great deal is needed.) This inheritance includes a large sum of money and a plush, if slightly dilapidated villa on a cliff-top outside Naples.

The two ladies make the journey down in inclement weather. They are still swathed in dour mourning black, not for their uncle – Heaven forbid! – but for their father, who has also recently died. Their names, by the way, are Agnes and Ellen Isit. This is pronounced EYES IT and not IS IT, which is a bit of a letdown. Personally, I can think of few things more fun than being named after an existential conundrum. The starchy and severe Agnes (Johnston) brings along her Scotch terrier; the sweet and rather fragile Ellen (Gray) brings her large and lazy tabby cat. Their train pulls into Naples as the rain pours down in torrents. Agnes is outraged to see that the stop has been marked NAPOLI. “Why can’t they call it Naples,” she sputters, “as we do?” She is the proud embodiment of a Little Englander abroad. No doubt Nigel Farage would find a use for her special talents.

But a stranger is waiting on the platform. A tall, dashing and vaguely sinister Italian named Salvatore. He was the uncle’s general factotum at the villa; he has come to welcome the ladies to their new home. Exactly what his relationship with Uncle Ludovic may have been is left, politely, to our imagination. We can hazard a guess when Ellen – on her first morning at the villa – unveils one of the late uncle’s paintings, which was shrouded in a heavy velvet curtain. It is an image of Salvatore, fully nude, in the homoerotic guise of the Great God Pan. Unusually for a portrait in movies, it is filmed strictly from the waist up. We see Salvatore’s nude and muscular chest, his impish and rather perverse smile, the twist of roses and vine-leaves in his lustrous black hair. The sisters may only have just met him, but we can tell – from the look of frozen shock on their faces – that they have got to know this man rather well.

As played by the swoonily handsome Kieron Moore, Salvatore is the one Italian in captivity who speaks in Neapolitan dialect with an Irish brogue. Moore is best remembered today for the disaster that all but destroyed his career, his pallid turn as Count Vronsky in the 1948 remake of Anna Karenina opposite an exquisite but rather bored-looking Vivien Leigh. In fairness, not a great deal can be done with a role like Vronsky – but the lovely Moore failed to do even that. Yet he was an up-and-coming heart-throb in British films of the 40s. Leslie Arliss, who wrote and directed A Man about the House, cast him a number of times. The leading auteur of bodice-ripping Gainsborough romances, Arliss had previously made a star of James Mason (The Night Has Eyes, The Wicked Lady) and Stewart Granger (The Man in Grey, Love Story). It is safe to say he was a connoisseur of dark and brooding male beauty.

It does not take long to work out that Salvatore is up to no good. His ancestors were a dynasty of feckless aristocrats; they once owned the land the villa is built on. Quite naturally, he feels the whole place is his by right. Our main element of suspense is about which of the two sisters will succumb to him first. His eye, of course, is on Agnes. She is the elder and heir presumptive to the estate. For the most part, Agnes glares at him in dour disapproval. (She has the air of Theresa May on a jaunt to Brussels – a stolid and unimaginative Englishwoman, forced against her will to have dealings with disreputable foreigners.) Yet one morning, Agnes discreetly but provocatively undoes the top button of her dress. She wanders out to meet Salvatore in the villa’s sunlit garden. There she sees him holding Ellen by the arm. Flying into a jealous rage, she promptly storms back inside. Salvatore had taken her sister’s arm only to stop the girl tripping over a stone. But in the warped eyes of Agnes, he is already guilty of betrayal.

Things come to a head at the annual grape harvest. As in any film with a pastoral Italian setting, the peasants pour them into an enormous vat and stomp on them with gay abandon. Salvatore frolics with a lusty local wench, whose bosom is in constant danger of spilling out of her blouse. He even induces Ellen to join the fun and tread some grapes herself! Agnes stays locked in her room, obsessively playing games of patience. Suddenly, she can endure no more. Flinging open the door to her balcony, she stands there like Death in a story by Edgar Allan Poe – glaring balefully down on the festivities. She shrieks out a single word: “SALVATORE!” All at once, he leaves off roistering and bounds up the marble staircase to her chamber. The soundtrack rising to a thunderous frenzy, he runs inside and the door swings slowly shut. A Man about the House may not be a Gainsborough production, but it has the same inimitable blend of depravity and coyness.

It is not long before Agnes and Salvatore are married. Every morning, he lovingly prepares her a special egg-flip. She begins to suffer from headaches, nausea and fatigue. When the Scotty dog dies after licking a spilled egg-flip off the floor, even Ellen starts to grow a tad suspicious. Having started off as a blend of Black Narcissus and A Room with a View, the film now morphs bizarrely into a Victorian remake of Suspicion. Never one to indulge in excessive displays of originality, Arliss even places a light-bulb in the drink that Salvatore carries up the stairs to his wife’s sickbed. Yet quite unlike the ending of the Hitchcock film, the finale of A Man about the House actually does make sound (if deeply disquieting) dramatic sense. Kieron Moore’s was a star career that never quite got off the ground, so a director was under no pressure to show that he was actually a nice guy.

Ultimately, A Man about the House is ‘not nice’ and all the better for it. Yet a full seventy years before Brexit, its message is alarmingly clear. It implies – and not even too subtly – that solid and respectable Britons would do well to steer clear of dodgy Continental types. It shows that any dalliance of that sort can only end in tears.

David Melville

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