Thursday, October 31, 2013

Spirits of the seaside

Waves are always crashing against the shore in The Uninvited (1944), lulling in a way that seems more threatening than calming—things happen when you slip into a trance. If you live near the ocean the ocean is ordinary, but ordinary things are eerie here, houses most of all. English thespian Lewis Allen’s film directing debut is a beguiling gem from wartime Hollywood, a ghost story riddled with whimsy but finally very serious about specters, and, like any good spooky movie, very focused on atmosphere. Charles Lang, Jr. won an Oscar for his cinematography, which not only renders those crashing waves as sensual and doom-laden but also manipulates the light beaming off those waves so that it enters people’s homes—that ocean really is everywhere—and plays with shadow in a way that’s mysterious and unnerving, romantic and sexy. “It’s getting almost too dark to see you,” says the film’s leading man to the woman he’s slowly falling for. The penumbra is where lovers meet, and where billowing phantoms materialize. The Uninvited is now available for inviting into your own home, on Blu-ray or DVD, thanks to the Criterion Collection.

Based on a novel by Dorothy Macardle, something about The Uninvited’s set-up strikes me as curious. Patrick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) are wandering along the Cornish coast when they discover Winward House, a vacant hilltop manor with vast rooms and a bleak recent history. Before they learn of that history, which involves “a quiet, ladylike” murder, they spontaneously decide to put all their savings into buying the house. The two get along swimmingly. They’re young enough, charming enough and good-looking enough—though Pamela’s approach to her eyebrows betrays some hidden eccentricity—to give the air of a happy couple. They’re actually brother and sister. I’m not implying anything unseemly, but the odd closeness of these siblings is just one of many weird and compelling ingredients in The Uninvited’s simmering stew.

So Patrick, a music critic and aspiring composer—he actually composes 'Stella by Starlight' during the film—is a free agent, leaving him to wonder about Stella Meredith (Gail Russell), the sleepy eyed beauty whose grandfather sells Winward House to the Fitzgeralds against her will. You see, there’s familial weirdness here too: when the Fitzgeralds first enter Winward Pamela instantly feels attracted to it on account of its resemblance to their childhood home and the memories it stirs of their deceased mother; Stella doesn’t want her grandfather to sell Winward because it is a monument to her mother, who lived in the house and died when Stella was three, along with Stella’s father and her father’s Spanish mistress. Stella thinks her mother still lingers in Winward and, judging from the disembodied weeping that wafts through Winward’s rooms, she may be right.

Criterion’s Uninvited is slim on supplements, but what it’s got is pretty great. Filmmaker Michael Almereyda provides an excellent audiovisual essay that clocks in at just under a half-hour. It includes a smart survey of Milland’s long career, a biographical sketch on Russell, whose tenure in Hollywood was fraught with insecurity and reckless drinking, a chapter entirely devoid of narration, and another featuring an interview with an anthropologist speaking about the history of spiritualism, featuring a shot of Almereyda’s subject that appears to be taken from the point of view of a ghost. 

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