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aka Satan in Skirts

D: John Brahm / 121m

Cast: Anne Baxter, Ralph Bellamy, Aline MacMahon, Ruth Warrick, Scott McKay, Marie McDonald, Jerome Cowan, Margaret Hamilton, Percy Kilbride, Connie Laird

A semi-remote house on the cliffs of Maine, a psychiatric patient who can’t help her manipulative ways, a family about to be torn apart thanks to jealousy and the propagation and belief of certain lies, and a dark, brooding atmosphere to cap it all off. Welcome to the psycho-noir theatrics of Guest in the House, a movie that is as brazen and as wanton as it can be given the decade it was produced, and which was unfairly derided on its initial release. Time hasn’t been entirely kind to the movie, as seeing it in its original full length is now very difficult – most extant prints run around one hundred minutes – but it’s definitely one to seek out and admire for its fervid tone and rampant paranoia.

Adapted for the stage by Hagar Wilde and Dale Eunson, from a story by Katherine Albert, this screen adaptation by the wonderfully named Ketti Frings (who would go on to write the screenplays for The File on Thelma Jordon (1950) and Come Back, Little Sheba (1952) amongst others), and with an uncredited contribution by André De Toth, is a cuckoo in the nest tale that concerns Evelyn Heath (Baxter), who suffers from a heart condition and a traumatic past. She’s been a patient under the care of Dr Dan Proctor (McKay), and now they’re engaged. Having decided that she needs peace and quiet in order to recover from a recent bout of ill health, Dan brings her to his home on the Maine coast, and persuades his family to let her stay there indefinitely. Although she’s initially fearful of her new environment, and stays in her room a lot, Evelyn soon earns the sympathy of Dan’s family – his artist brother, Douglas (Bellamy), Douglas’s wife, Ann (Warrick), their daughter, Lee (Laird), and Dan and Douglas’s aunt Martha (MacMahon) – as well as their good friends, Miriam (McDonald), who lives there and works as a model for Douglas, and Mr Hackett (Cowan).

Douglas is an attentive and supportive substitute for Dan, and though she has feelings for Dan, she soon decides that she needs to clear the way in order that she and Douglas can be together permanently. She begins by insisting that Dan returns to the clinic where they met and continue his work there; she also maintains that she’ll be reunited with him when she’s better (so no patient-doctor dilemma there). With Dan out of the way, Evelyn sees to it that, one by one, everyone else is either forced to leave the house or leaves of their own accord thanks to the web of lies she weaves. A once happy and carefree household becomes a hostile, prejudicial environment where not even Lee is safe from Evelyn’s machinations. And as Douglas becomes more and more withdrawn from the people who love him, and falls victim to Evelyn’s plan, his antipathy and anger towards them appears to be the one thing, that if it remains unchecked, will see Evelyn achieve everything she’s aiming for.

Guest in the House is a movie that betrays its stagebound origins at almost every turn, and while there’s an awful lot of scenes that require the cast to go up and down stairs as if it’s going to break out into a farce at any minute, these scenes do serve to highlight the increasing aloofness of the characters from each other, and the dramatic significance of what goes on behind the closed doors on the house’s upper level. The house is used in quite a clever way, looking and feeling bright and airy and welcoming (particularly to Evelyn) at the beginning, but becoming increasingly claustrophobic as the movie continues. This is helped tremendously by Lee Garmes’ cinematography, which adds more and more shadows to bolster that sense of claustrophobia, and which acts as a measure of the psychological effect that Evelyn’s plotting has on all concerned. The weather too transforms from bright and sunny to dark and stormy, further adding to the sense of impending disaster, and in the hands of director John Brahm (himself brought in after original director Lewis Milestone fell ill, and second choice John Cromwell was unavailable), the movie’s tone becomes equally as dramatic and the characters more and more isolated thanks to their location.

As a psychological thriller, its success or failure rests entirely on the character of Evelyn, and though there are times when her manipulation of others is likely to strike viewers as entirely too obvious, and Baxter’s performance borders too often on being overly melodramatic, in the end it’s the effect she has on the other characters that is compelling rather than whether or not she’s credible in her actions and her dialogue. Seeing Douglas and Ann’s marriage unravel makes for disturbing viewing, not just for the ease with which Evelyn makes it happen, but for the way in which Douglas – our hero, at least at the beginning – embraces it. Overlooked for the most part, it’s Douglas’s descent into antagonsim and dissent that is the movie’s strong suit, and the psycholgical underpinnings that allow him to do so are exploited superbly, making Bellamy’s performance much better than usual – it’s a far cry from the second-string romantic roles he played in movies such as Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) and Affectionately Yours (1941).

The cast as a whole contribute solid, considered performances, and there’s fine supporting work from the likes of MacMahon and Warrick, and Hamilton as the housekeeper whose morality is offended by the lies that Evelyn fosters. It all races to an over the top finale that stretches credibility quite a bit, but where a degree of ambiguity may have made for a better ending, what there is is satisfying (for the most part) on a dramatic level, if not a psychological one. Brahm orchestrates the sometimes over-ripe material to maximum effect, and throws in odd visual moments that are startling in their appearance, such as Evelyn looking intently out of a rain-swept window. Elsewhere, there are times when certain scenes wouldn’t feel out of place in a Hitchcock movie, and despite its often florid approach, it maintains a mordaunt sensibility that keeps the viewer in thrall to the unfolding narrative.

Rating: 8/10 – not a masterpiece by any means, but still a terrific example of what might be described today as a “home invasion” thriller, Guest in the House is subtler than it looks, and more gripping than you’d expect; with a troubling, unsettling subtext relating to sexual desire to make it even more interesting, it’s a movie that deserves to be rediscovered, and hopefully in its full length version.

NOTE: At present, there is no trailer for Guest in the House.

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