Monday, May 26, 2014

Love from a Stranger (1937)

Love from a Stranger (AKA A Night of Terror) is a 1937 British crime melodrama based on a short story by Agatha Christie. Christie was best-known for her detective stories but she also write thrillers and Love from a Stranger is more psychological thriller than detective story. It can also be regarded as being to a certain extent a precursor of the British style of film noir, being very much darker than most 1930s murder mysteries. The heroine is, to a limited extent, a noir protagonist in that one mistake plunges her into a noir nightmare world. The male villain on the other hand has something in common with the classic noir femme fatale.

Christie’s thrillers often tended to be quite dark, Endless Night being a good example.

Carol Howard (Anne Harding) works in an office and shares a flat with her friend Kate Meadows (Binnie Hale) and her hypochondriac aunt, Aunt Loo (Jean Cadell). She lives a life of drudgery, her only hope coming from her addiction to buying lottery tickets. Her boyfriend Ronnie (Bruce Seaton) is always chiding her for what he sees as her childish belief that she can somehow escape from reality by winning the lottery. Until one day Carol really does win the lottery. She wins a very large amount of money indeed in the French National Lottery.

This puts great strain on her relationship with Ronnie and leads to the ending of their engagement. Ronnie cannot bear the thought of being supported by a rich wife.

Carol is now a wealthy woman and she and Kate set off to Paris to collect Carol’s winnings, intending to then go on to a European tour. On the ferry to France she meets handsome debonair playboy Gerald Lovell (Basil Rathbone). Gerald is cultured and wealthy, or at least he claims to be. He had already met Carol when came to view her flat with a view to renting it so seeing him on the ferry is something of a surprise. Gerald sweeps her off her feet, which isn’t very difficult given the rather limited life she has led. Before very long she and Gerald are married.

The warning signs that something is not right are there from the start but Carol refuses to recognise them. Gerald spins her a story about his fortune being tied up in a South American bank, an annoying circumstance because Gerald is anxious to buy a house in the country. It’s just the sort of house Carol has always dreamed of and it seems such a pity to miss out on it just because of a silly mix-up that has made it temporarily difficult for Gerald to access his fortune. Carol comes up with a very sensible solution. She will lend Gerald the five thousand pounds to buy the house and he will pay her back as soon as his one becomes available. All Carol has to do is sign a few papers. Carol doesn’t understand such financial matters but since Gerald assures her that it’s all very simple and straightforward she doesn’t bother to read them.

Before the marriage Gerald had been charming and attentive but that soon starts to change. Gerald becomes unpredictable and morose and is subject to violent fits of temper. Carol isn’t worried; poor Gerald has just been under a lot of stress and he still has nightmares about the war. She is convinced that all she needs to do is to a loving and supportive wife and everything will be fine.

Of course things are not fine. Gerald’s behaviour becomes more unstable. Gerald reads a lot of criminology books and he flies into a rage when Carol looks at one of these books, and especially when she looks at the chapter dealing with a notorious fortune-hunter who married and murdered three women. Gerald’s health is also a matter of concern. When Carol finally persuades him to consult a doctor the doctor diagnoses a heart condition.

Despite her attempts to persuade herself that she has nothing to worry about Carol is increasingly nervous and is even starting to be just a little scared, especially when Gerald sends the servants away at a time when his behaviour is more strange than usual. Being left alone in the house with a man who is more and more paranoid and unbalanced is not a happy prospect. Of course Gerald is really just highly strung and nervous and she’s probably just being silly, but even so. Does Carol really have something to worry about or is she just being unnecessarily suspicious?

The film has something in common with Francis Iles’ 1932 psychological crime thriller Before the Fact, later filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as Suspicion. In fact it has definite similarities to Hitchcock’s style of suspense films.

Ann Harding is an adequate heroine. A first she seems to be impossibly na├»ve but as the story progresses her character develops somewhat as her potentially dangerous situation brings out some unexpected strength of character. Basil Rathbone is superb in the early part of the film as the charming, but perhaps too charming, Gerald Lovell. As the plot unfolds he changes gears dramatically and starts to go delightfully over-the-top, becoming sinister and then downright scary. Basil Rathbone’s ability to switch very easily between charming and sinister is one of the movie’s chief assets.

This is one of the areas in which this movie moves sharply into psychological theory territory with some actual character development, with Gerald changing for the worse and Carol changing for the better.

This movie in included in several of the Mill Creek public domain DVD sets, including their rather good Dark Crimes set. The print is a bit rough in places but is reasonably satisfactory.

Love from a Stranger works equally well as a psychological thriller and a crime melodrama. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable movie and I’d even go so far as to describe it as a neglected gem. It’s certainly an interesting movie and something of a must-see for Basil Rathbone fans. Highly recommended.

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