Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Eleanor Meets Herself

The setting is a small English village in the 1850s.  A young man arrives by train late at night.  No transportation is available, so he walks to his new residence, Limmeridge House, where he will be working as an art instructor.   En route, he meets an odd young woman, dressed all in white, who disappears when a carriage approaches.  Thus begins the mystery that is The Woman in White (1948), based on the novel of the same name by Wilkie Collins.

As a huge fan of Wilkie Collins and of the novel, I have mixed feelings about this film, which changes so many aspects of the original story (later on, I'll detail some of those changes).  My colleagues were not familiar with the book, nor with the 1997 BBC production (which appeared on PBS); as a result of our discussion, one member is planning to read the book, the other to take a look at the more recent adaptation.  Since our discussion of the film did look at the book as well, readers should be warned that spoilers will be included.  I usually try to avoid them; in this case, it would be impossible.

By and large, the group felt that the movie was disjointed, and once information about the book was included, they all said they would have liked a film that more closely followed the novel.  However, the change in the character of Laura Fairlie (Eleanor Parker) from namby pamby to someone who actually has a backbone, was a vast improvement.  Wilkie Collins painted his main heroine as the helpless blonde female - she is gorgeous and gentle, and therefore does not have a brain in her head, or the ability to do much more than faint in the face of adversity.  Eleanor Parker does a good job of portraying Laura, and of showing her attempted resistance of the dastardly Count Fosco.  Her Anne Catherick is a bit more mannered, and resulted in a number of jokes about "identical cousins".  In the novel, Anne and Laura are probably half-sisters.

Both book and film give us a strong, capable Marian Halcombe (Alexis Smith), here described as Laura's cousin; in the novel they too are half-sisters (Mr Fairlie was a busy man!)  But Ms. Smith is a beautiful woman, and Marian really should not be.  Walter Hartright (Gig Young) describes her thus in the novel:
The lady is ugly. . . . [her] complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead.

However, Walter also says that Marian appears "bright, frank, and intelligent."  And while Ms. Smith certainly appears "bright, frank, and intelligent," she is NOT ugly.  So, it is no surprise that at the end of the film, Walter ends up with the lovely, smart Marian, while in the novel, he weds the gorgeous, vapid, helpless Laura.  Alexis. Smith is excellent in the role; she projects an intelligence and engagement that is essential for the role to be successful.
Sydney Greenstreet as Count Alesandro Fosco, stays very close to the character as written in the book.  He has the same rather overpowering charm, and the same sinister demeanor.  His sincere admiration for Marian is also retained.  We meet him almost immediately, and, of course, are immediately suspicious of his intentions.  In the novel, we are not introduced to the character until after the marriage of Laura and Sir Percival Glyde.  He is not married to Anne Catherick's mother (the Countess Fosco, as played by Agnes Moorehead), and it is Walter, not Marian, who forces him to confess his intentions. 

All of these changes, and others, serve to diminish some of the power of the book, and it is unfortunate.  The book is quite cinematic; like Dickens, his friend and sometime collaborator, Collins was a very visual writer, and his descriptions would lend themselves well to film.

We spoke at some length about Gig Young.  The actor had changed his name about 6 years prior to this film, from Byron Barr to Gig Young, adopting the name of his character in The Gay Sisters.  This is the second film he made after returning from WWII, where he served in the Coast Guard.  He had a long and very varied career.  He was a talented comedic actor (in films like That Touch of Mink and Teacher's Pet), and a powerful dramatic actor, finally winning an Oscar in 1969 for They Shoot Horses, Don't They?  His death, at his own hand, at the age of 65 (he also murdered his new wife) remains a mystery to this day.

We leave you with an early scene, in which we get to meet several of the main characters: