Wilkie Collins, English novelist and some say the creator of the first modern detective novel, wrote an absorbing story, The Woman in White, in 1859. Warner Brothers decided to made a film version of Collin’s novel in 1948. Turner Classic Movies aired it this past week, so I tuned in and was not disappointed with this tale of mystery, romance, and murder! Beautiful ladies in distress, a handsome hero trying to unravel the strange goings on, and a trio of baddies. Let’s dive in to this atmospheric and eerie film!
Walter Hartright(Gig Young) has been hired to be the art tutor for heiress Laura Fairlie(Eleanor Parker). He arrives in the English town of Limmeridge, late at night. Since it’s a full moon and he learns the walk to the Fairlie estate is only 30 minutes from where the stagecoach has deposited him, he decides to walk to the estate. On the way, a young woman dressed in a white dress and a white cape, startles him as she emerges from some nearby shrubbery. She is Ann Catherick(Eleanor Parker, in a dual role) a very pretty woman with her long hair loose around her shoulders, but she also appears to be quite troubled. Hartright, being a gentleman, asks how he can help her. Ann replies that he is to tell no one that he saw her, and when a carriage begins to approach, she shudders and runs away. In the carriage is Count Fosco(Sydney Greenstreet) and Dr. Nevin(Matthew Boulton) who asks Hartright if he’s seen a young woman roaming about, that she’s escaped from the nearby asylum!! Hartright remembers Ann’s request and he tells the two men that he hasn’t seen anyone. Within these first 5 minutes of the movie, we have met the hero, Hartright, one of the ladies in distress, Ann, and one of the main baddies, Count Fosco.
Hartright makes it to the Fairlie estate, and is greeted by Laura Fairlie’s first cousin, Marian(Alexis Smith) who warmly explains the household to him: various butlers, Laura’s retired nurse Mrs. Vesey(Emma Dunn),and Frederic Fairlie(John Abbott) the incredibly nervous, annoying invalid of an uncle to Marian and Laura. Uncle Frederic goes on and on about how loud sounds upset his nerves; his lines reminded me of Vincent Price’s lines from Roger Corman’s The Fall of the House of Usher. The next morning, Hartright sees Ann from the night before but he is greatly mistaken for this young woman is not Ann but is Laura Fairlie, his new student. Laura has a bit of fun telling all at the breakfast table of Hartright’s encounter with the woman in white. This immediately causes Count Fosco’s eyebrows to shoot up. Why does he seem so startled and a bit irritated that Hartright had met this woman in white? Why does this woman in white, Ann, look so similar to Laura? We begin to wonder at these events as the movie continues.
Love begins to bloom and blossom between Laura and Hartright, and we can also tell that Marian is in love with Hartright but she’s trying to fight that emotion. One afternoon during an art lesson outdoors, Laura becomes upset with her efforts at painting and runs away from Hartright, crying. Marian is able to pull Hartright aside and give him the news that Laura hadn’t and should have, that Laura is engaged to marry Sir Percival Glyde(John Emery) and that Sir Glyde is due at the estate that very day! Hartright decides to do the honorable thing and pack up and leave the estate. He doesn’t know that Count Fosco was spying on he and Laura during a passionate kiss. Hartright also doesn’t know that a letter that gives information about another little girl who used to live at the estate and play with Laura, an Ann Catherick, was stolen by the Count. Ann, all grown up, who has been forcibly placed in the asylum by Count Fosco, as part of his evil plan to have Sir Glyde marry Laura, then have Laura slowly poisoned, so Glyde will receive the inheritance, and he’ll split it with Count Fosco! Ann knows of this evil plan, and keeps escaping from the asylum to try to get to Laura to warn her!
Will Laura marry Sir Glyde? How does Count Fosco have the legal power to force Ann into an asylum? Will Hartright come back to the estate to stop the wedding? Will Count Fosco and Sir Glyde’s plan be foiled? What will happen to Marian and her love for Hartright? It sounds like a crazy plot but by the film’s end, all questions will be answered. Also, pay attention to the great Agnes Moorehead as Count Fosco’s long-suffering wife. She enters into the movie at the halfway point, but her character is a key that will unlock the shenanigans that belong to Count Fosco and Sir Glyde. For an intriguing story acted by a great cast, seek out 1948’s The Woman in White.