directed by Robert Wise
screenplay by Nelson Gidding
after the novel by Shirley Jackson (1959)
The book was better, but was the movie any good? I think it was, but in a weaker way. The biggest problem with the book was that it wasn’t perfect, so to speak – it was trying for an effect of carefully controlled atmosphere, but there were little gaps and irregularities in the cloth. Maybe the more eccentric choices were all intentional, but they still tended to dilute the spell, and the spell would seem to be the whole point. The movie suffered from the same problem, but moreso. We’re there for the atmosphere, so every time we have to think “that came off a little odd; oh well, I’m going to be a good sport and go along with it…” the experience falls a notch.
Was it that the movie had aged poorly? Not particularly, though it’s definitely full of dated mannerisms in the writing and staging. In the movie, dialogue that in the book had seemed atmospherically peculiar just seemed clumsy and unlikely. Maybe there’s just something more self-assured about text on a page that helps it age better. Or maybe, as I suspect, this movie was always clunkier than the book.
The score was by Humphrey Searle – whom you may know as the “S” in Franz Liszt’s “19 Hungarian Rhapsodies, S. 244” et al. – and while a good deal of the music was interesting on its own terms, it was a bad score that, I think, hurt the movie considerably. This movie could make an excellent case study in the difference between incidental music and independent music – rather than adding to the effect of the visual, Searle consistently describes it, as though he’s writing for radio. As we’re being shown several “forbidding” shots of the house, meant to convey the immediate aversion of our heroine upon her arrival, we hear a little discordant fanfare figure in each shot. The music here emphasizes the artifice of the editing, and comments on the significance of the shots, rather than contributing to the feeling of the scene – good way to bring a viewer out of the moment. Furthermore, when Searle does try for scary effects, he doesn’t have a good sense of which avant-gardisms “sound” and which just come off like an orchestra doing something weird. All too often this music registers to the viewer as “some kind of weird music,” because of the distracting trombone-iness and harp-iness of what’s going on, if you know what I mean. Stravinsky talked about wanting to write for violin in a way that captured its inherent “violin-iness” (okay, so he didn’t use that word – I’m just saying that real composers care about this concept) – and that’s exactly the sort of writing that shouldn’t be employed in incidental music. The effect is everything; the means should be invisible, or at least ignorable.
That said, I like his main theme* – it very successfully captures what the book is going for, I think – and wish he had known better how to deploy it.
The black and white looks great and the sets, costumes and location are nicely done, especially considering that the book relies so heavily on the reader’s imagination to make this stuff more unnerving than any actual image could ever be. The book is about feeling upset and scared while looking at very mild things – so the movie has a very hard task, since the viewer is much more likely to feel the way any normal person would feel, looking at, say, a wall. I think Robert Wise did a fine job in his struggle against that problem; I admire the scene that’s just a shot of the wall. In fact there are a lot of striking, well-shot, pleasantly eerie visuals throughout. But turning insinuations into actual imagery is still an uphill battle and the movie doesn’t exactly make it to the top.
I should however mention that this movie has an excellent scare in it that made me shout out loud in shock, which I never ever do. I don’t want to give it away – I’ll just say that it conformed exactly to a theory of mine about how to make the worst possible scare in a movie: first give the audience about one second of not being sure what’s happening and then hit them with the scare image. It’s the unknown that’s scary, not the surprise itself – surprise is just a means of making something unfamiliar. A jump scare that comes in a tense context, where the audience is already braced for a scare, isn’t nearly as terrible as a jump scare that comes when everyone’s guard is down – as long as you prime your audience with that one second of “oh, what’s this?” so that when it shows up, they know without a doubt what’s happening – they’re getting caught with their guard down. Terrifying. Robert Wise and his editor pulled it off exactly.
Julie Harris makes the main character suitably pathetic, but doesn’t quite bring the sympathetic quality that comes for free in the book just from the fact that she’s narrating. Claire Bloom does the cruelly unpredictable stuff that’s written for her, but like I said, behavior that’s jarring in the book is ridiculous on the screen unless we’re convinced of it, and I wasn’t at all convinced. Russ Tamblyn seems to be present. The best thing in the movie is Richard Johnson as Dr. Markway**. I haven’t seen him in anything else – given his filmography I guess that’s not surprising – and I thought he was a really entertaining presence, a well-bred British fellow with absolutely no shame about raising an eyebrow and saying things as though they’re really interesting. He goes about his business with a sort of constant, non-sequitur dignity; it’s a pleasure to watch. The DVD commentary track has all the major cast members plus the director and screenwriter showing up for at least a few words, but the majority of it is a 75-year-old Johnson waxing on about his career in general. He comes off more or less exactly like Dr. Markway. I enjoyed it.
One thing he mentions is that he was offered the role of James Bond before Sean Connery, but turned it down. He says something like, “at first glance, I do seem like a more obvious choice for the role,” which at first sounds absurd but on second consideration makes sense – he’s an actual debonair fellow, rather than a smirking rogue. He goes on to say that the rougher quality “Sean” brought to the role was a big part of the success of the James Bond series, which is also certainly true. However, IMDB tells me that Richard Johnson went on to star in two “Bulldog Drummond” movies. Drummond, whose name rings the tiniest of bells for me, was a longstanding detective character who was retooled in Bond’s image in the late 60s. I think I’d enjoy seeing Deadlier Than the Male (1966) and Some Girls Do (1969), both as period James Bond ripoffs and for the chance to imagine what the Richard Johnson Bond movies might have been like. But apparently they’re not easy to come by.
I leave you with this promotional still from Deadlier Than the Male. If you set out intentionally to take a photo for the caption “The poor man’s James Bond,” I don’t think you could do better than this.