They don’t make them like they used to is a lazy thing to say, but they really don’t. There’s a wonderful tangible and hypnotic innocence to early cinema that we’ve lost... or progressed from depending how you look at it, but it’s great to be able to relive films like this. Paula (Ingrid Bergman) hasn’t had a happy start in life, her aunt murdered in her foggy london home. Escaping to Italy she meets and falls for Gregory (Charles Boyer). It’s an affluent life, palatial hotels on Lake Como. Were lives of the poor depicted often in 40s cinema? I don’t think so, I guess it was a medium purely of escape. Anyway, Gregory fancies settling in London and Paula still owns her aunts house at 9 Thornton Square an address that haunts her, but she puts that aside for Gregory’s wishes. I must admit I’m captivated by old London. Cobble streets, horse drawn carriages and of course gaslights. The house is stunning and thanks to the eerie score, quite spooky. Unchanged since that fateful night of the unsolved murder... and full of clues. I don’t trust dear Gregory and I’m not sure about Nancy (Angela Lansbury) the new maid either. The sneaky sod is playing mind games, undermining poor Paula, trying to convince her she’s losing it. He’s a gold digger. Not like Brian (Joseph Cotten) and Miss Thwaites (May Whitty), both who bring much needed warmth. Brian works at Scotland Yard and smells a rat... and a jewel thief, every murder needs a motive. The elderly Miss Thwaites, well she loves a good story and is fascinated by the things that happened at number 9. And might well she be, there’s a lot going on in it’s walls. Largely down to poor Paula rarely leaving them, slowly being pushed into the role of reclusive madness, by an increasingly manipulative Gregory. It’s partly frustrating knowing that Paula is being bullied and unsettling to modern eyes. Yet it’s captivating as we expect repercussion, relief, truth and justice. The gaslit house with its shadows and aunties old memorabilia locked up in its top floor, brings an odd supernatural sense to proceedings, but we know what’s really going on and Brian is onto something too. Bergman is fantastic in her increasing frailty. Boyer in his domineering menace. Lansbury in with her east end flirting and Cotten as the hero detective. It’s a lovely slow burner with fantastic finale.
This isn’t the original though, oh no. There’s a version that predates in by 4 years. The story is much the same, albeit with different names and locations. We’re still rooted around the story of a murder, but this one is at 12 Pimlico Square and we witness it in the opening scenes, with a strangling and considering the era, some pretty dramatic ransacking. London is still charming. Penny farthing bicycles roam freely and steps are swept with straw broomsticks. After some time, number 12 gets new occupants. Paul Mallen (Anton Walbrook) and his wife Bella (Diana Wynard). The oddly named ‘Rough’ (Frank Pettingell) clocks something’s off right away, he knows Mr Mallen, by another name, one that connects him to the murdered aunt. The leading man is still a manipulating villain m, undermining the mental faculties of his unsuspecting wife whilst flirting with Nancy the maid, Cathleen Cordell setting the template perfectly. Much of the remake is a carbon copy. This cuts to the chase much quicker though. There are minor differences, but both versions work well. It’s the tension between the two central characters that’s important, that and the meddling hero. Boyer is more sauve and staged in his delivery, but Wallbrook seems more villainous. The shock of grey in coiffured hair, the stroked moustache, the cold stare and cloak. I’m gonna say I prefer the remake, I feel a bit dirty saying that, but it feels more fleshed out, without becoming tiresome. Credit has to go to the original though for... originality. The 1944 version takes so much, it’s almost impossible to separate them. That said some of my favourite lines are in the original, not least Rough’s perfectly timed comment to Bella “You’re supposed to be going off yer head aren’t you.” and when taking of his coat “Saucy shirt isn’t it”. Rough is the star for me and provides a thrilling end to a fantastic mystery thriller.