Sunday, October 04, 2009

THE 1947 GOTHIC BARNSTORMER "UNCLE SILAS" BRINGS THE CLASSIC J. SHERIDAN LEFANU NOVEL TO THE SILVER SCREEN WITH A FULL QUOTIENT OF BLOOD AND THUNDER. Sheridan LeFanu, perhaps best known for his vampire novella "Carmilla", unleashed UNCLE SILAS on the world in 1865 and it's perhaps one of the primary examples of the gothic novel. While my favourite film version remains the late 80's TV movie "THE DARK ANGEL" starring Peter O'Toole, this 1947 version nearly matches it!
Our archetypal gothic heroine is 16 year old heiress Maud Ruthyn who resides in her rich father Austin Ruthyn's mansion. Austin has a ne'er-do-well brother named Silas who has led a sinful life and was at one time linked to a murder (which was declared a suicide because the corpse was found in a room locked from the inside). Silas exists in his crumbling gothic pile at Bartram-Haugh supported by his brother Austin's largesse while a huge portrait of her Uncle hanging over the fireplace has intrigued Maud all her life. Maud lives a carefree life until her father hires a French governess named Madame de la Rougierre. Maud's father believes the governess to be beyond reproach but Maud soon discovers the French woman to be sadistic, sinister and often drunk. After a good deal of time making Maud's life miserable, the governess is caught trying to rifle through Austin's private papers using a stolen key and she is promptly dismissed. Not long after, Austin Ruthyn suffers a fatal heart attack and Maud is given into the custody of her Uncle Silas until she reaches her maturity and inherits Austin's fortune. Maud is at first thrilled to finally meet her Uncle whom her father has always staunchly defended as misunderstood. However, as time goes by things appear to be a little "off" with Uncle Silas as little ominous clues start suggesting that her uncle might not have Maud's best interests at heart after all. Well, I mean come on! This is a gothic novel. You didn't REALLY think Uncle Silas was up to any good, now did you???
"UNCLE SILAS" is a truly beautiful-looking film by little-known director Charles Frank. In fact, the director himself is a mystery in himself. Frank only directed a couple films and then ceased all activity; he is often erroneously given more film credits which actually belong to ANOTHER director named Charles Frank. In William K. Everson's seminal book "More Classics of the Horror Film", the author reveals that he at first thought the name "Charles Frank" sounded like a pseudonym for another better known director. However, upon questioning other directors working for the J. Arthur Rank Organization at the same time (including Michael Powell), Everson was assured by all of them that Charles Frank WAS a real person, that was his real name and they all had no idea whatever became of him. This is all particularly intriguing since the direction of UNCLE SILAS is something of a tour de force showing a major talent who should have gone on to direct many classic films. The movie is packed with stylistic flourishes which remind me of another director who should have but never did go on to a long directorial career: Charles Laughton with NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. While thematically and stylistically different, both films evince a strong directorial vision as well as deft handling of individual style and a sure filmic eye. UNCLE SILAS spills over with eye-catching shots that threaten to dazzle the viewer with their beauty and construction; all of this in the service of the story which is deliriously gothic anyway. Much of this undoubtedly can be attributed to Director of Photography Robert Krasker who lensed a list of films including BRIEF ENCOUNTER, ODD MAN OUT, THE THIRD MAN, SENSO, EL CID, BILLY BUDD, FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and THE COLLECTOR. You will go a long way before you find better black and white photography than that on display in UNCLE SILAS. The film is dripping with gothic mood and atmosphere. I think the only way this film could look any better is if Simon Marsden photographed it!!! There are also some delirious fever dream-like sequences which make use of montage, distorting mirrors, tilting camera and other surreal tricks quite common in mid-to-late 1940's movies ranging from MURDER, MY SWEET to SPELLBOUND.
The cast is headed by Jean Simmons (in her very first movie role) as Maud Ruthyn; the actress underplays quite realistically while the rest of the cast lets loose with full blood and thunder. . . which is only appropriate in a gothic thriller like this one. Derrick de Marney as Uncle Silas and Katina Paxinou as Madame de la Rougierre let it all hang out with full-blooded fruity performances just short of Tod Slaughter. In fact, Tod Slaughter would probably fit right in except there's no real role for him here. Paxinou (also seen in FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS and MR. ARKADIN) as the sinister governess is a master at facial expressions which allow a cold steel cruelty to show through slightly underneath a false pleasant demeanor. When alone with Maud, Madame lets much of her sunny pretense drop but when others are around she fakes sunshine and light. Paxinou's character is introduced in a particularly effective and frightening way: her wild face pressed up against a rain-streaked window and she truthfully looks like nothing if not the wicked witch of the west. Uncle Silas is portrayed by de Marney (also seen in THINGS TO COME) with fay flippancy alternating with serpentine menace. While these three performances are the ones to watch, the rest of the cast is filled out with very competent character actors. Reginald Tate as Austin Ruthyn portrayed Professor Quatermass in the 1953 BBC-TV serial "THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT". Silas' slimy attorney Sleigh is played by George Curzon who portrayed Sexton Blake several times including in "SEXTON BLAKE AND THE HOODED TERROR" co-starring Tod Slaughter. Maud's kind but ineffectual cousin Lady Monica is played by Sophie Stewart who also appeared with Tod Slaughter in the title role of "MARIA MARTEN OR MURDER IN THE RED BARN" as well as holding more genre credits in DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS, THE MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES and THINGS TO COME. Esmond Knight as Dr. Bryerly will be a familiar face to Powell and Pressburger fans from his appearances in A CANTERBURY TALE, BLACK NARCISSUS, THE RED SHOES, etc. And also, in a small role as the brutish Sepulchre Hawkes, can be found Guy Rolfe: the aptly sepulchral-faced actor who would later star in the classic episode of Boris Karloff's Thriller "THE TERROR IN TEAKWOOD" as well as taking on the title role in William Castle's schlock-film MR. SARDONICUS.
Besides the superb look of the film, UNCLE SILAS also features wonderfully spooky soundwork which, I suppose, can be attributed to sound editor Kenneth Heeley-Ray. Once Maud takes up residence at the crumbling Bartram Haugh, there is almost a constant moaning wind and the mournful (and somehow threatening) sound of the clock tower bells striking each hour. There apparently is a U.S. version of the film entitled "THE INHERITANCE" which, by all reports should be avoided since approximately 6 minutes of very important stuff are cut out; however, the print I screened was entitled "UNCLE SILAS" so I'm hoping that this is in fact the original uncut British version of the film. As October begins and Halloween lingers over the horizon, I cannot think of a better film to get you into the Halloween spirit as the potent dose of gothic chills on offer in UNCLE SILAS.

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