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Thursday, September 1, 2011

LADIES IN RETIREMENT (1942)

This is one of those genteel melodramatic thrillers that lost its chills in the move from stage-to-screen. It's not alone. Barnstorming examples of the genre like PAYMENT DEFERRED/’32; NIGHT MUST FALL/’37; KIND LADY/’51; DEATHTRAP/’82; even the musical PHANTOM OF THE OPERA/’05 survived Ladies’ Matinees, theater parties, summer stock revivals & aging performers, only to come up short as movies. This one’s not bad, but where’s the oomph? Ida Lupino is housekeeper/companion to retired Music Hall actress Isobel Elsom (a holdover from the stage cast). Why, there’s even a maid in their isolated country home. (Evelyn Keyes with a darn good British accent.) And then came the storm . . . in the form of Lupino’s relatives: two loony sisters with no place to go (Edith Barrett and Elsa Lancaster in a truly disturbing perf), plus that scapegrace nephew who’s always broke and always up to no good (Louis Hayward, married to Lupino at the time). Resentment, blackmail, murder, a bricked up vault, all the ingredients for a fine bit of skullduggery. But helmer Charles Vidor can’t get the pot to boil on a play with so many dangling set-ups. Lenser George Barnes works hard for a bit of painterly ambiance on the purposefully stage-bound sets (the cyclorama looks like it came straight from the touring production), but Lupino apparently missed his memo and has to take some of the blame for a grimly realistic perf that works against the general tone of dark-and-stormy-night theatrics.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: GASLIGHT (aka ANGEL STREET), in the lean 1940 British version or the deluxe 1944 Hollywood edition, is the exemplar in this genre, but you might want to try the lesser known THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE/’46 to see how much easier it is to adapt one of these things out of a novel.

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