Robert Montgomery put away his usual tux and tony romantic patter for the chance to play the young psychopathic charmer in this film adaptation of Emlyn Willams’ stage shocker. Playing a bit of a drifter, Montgomery’s a revelation, a purring menace of calibrated madness, with the Irish cadence of a ‘darling boy.’ His new mark is Dame May Whitty, a crotchety old bird who lords it over two service women at her isolated country home, and her repressed live-in niece (Rosalind Russell). Whitty falls right away for Montgomery’s raffish charm & playful compliments, happy to have a young man about, especially after hearing about that corpse the police just found near her property . . . a headless corpse. There’s nothing particularly subtle about Williams’ play, clues & incriminating information are dropped with stagy thuds and ‘whodunit’ is never in question. It’s how everyone reacts to the obvious that pulls you in, and that can still give you the creeps. Watching Russell lowering her defenses, even when she knows better, still cuts pretty deep. Whitty, the sole holdover from the original stage production, is just about perfect, with a startling bit of hysteria that must have brought down the house on stage. The film isn’t exactly a triumph, Richard Thorpe was an odd choice as director, oriented toward action rather than nuance. But you quickly adjust to the period conventions, helped along by some atypically poetic tech work out of the M-G-M trick photography department. Neat miniatures, guys! Even the background score is a treat, with Edward Ward getting a rare prestige assignment instead of William Axt or Herbert Stothart, the usual M-G-M hacks. Hunt Stromberg is the producer of record, but the whole thing was a pet project for Montgomery who deserves credit for sweating the details to fine effect.
DOUBLE-BILL: Albert Finney did a forgotten remake in the ‘60s and Matthew Broderick played against type in a well-received stage revival in the ‘90s, but Patrick Hamilton got the most out of it, using Williams' play as a near template for his famous stage thriller ANGEL STREET, filmed as GASLIGHT in England in 1940 & then in Hollywood 1944, and a treat both times.