The Uninvited 1944
Two tiny figures climb the rocks to the Cornish headland. Without wide-angle lens and sharp photography from ace Hollywood cameraman Charles B Lang, the man and woman would be no more than dots amidst rocks. This opening shot is important. Although an American movie The Uninvited has an old-fashioned British sensibility. It reveals a time when many British doubted the significance of events and ideas and resisted taking themselves seriously. Self-effacement and resignation were regarded as valuable British characteristics.
The characters in The Uninvited are sophisticated but free of pretension. Modern audiences may find them dull. Horror requires neurosis but in The Uninvited this is restricted to Stella, and she is an adolescent and has a Spanish mother. The man who loves her is Roderick Fitzgerald. He is a music critic and a talented musician but he dismisses any praise of his ability. ‘I’m brilliant? Oh, I’ll put on sunglasses.’ Roderick refuses to think that he might be exceptional and he glories in being ordinary. The Uninvited was made in 1944, and Britain was at war. For a while being unassuming meant being steadfast. It was a key element in British culture. The audience know that Roderick is talented because he plays the piano and writes music. His sensitivity, which he denies, is obvious because his music changes when an unseen ghost affects the atmosphere in the room. The artist studio is the room that the ghost haunts. Art has value but it is not pretension free. The room threatens stability and integrity. The final triumph of Roderick is that he somehow settles down with a neurosis free girl and becomes a creative musician. If this is unlikely, the movie finishes with a good joke by Roderick. The line is in character and more believable than his destiny. Aware that he belongs to an extended family and a community that existed before him, Roderick remains humble. He will not challenge the values of his neighbours.
The music in the film does more than add mood and emotion. The grandfather is harsh but, when Stella is threatened, he makes the difficult walk to the haunted house. Despite his vulnerable health he waits in the room that contains the ghost. The meeting between Stella and her grandfather inside the room is splendid. It captures the intense concern of old flawed protectors for innocent grandchildren burdened with the future. The grandfather is transformed from being stern and authoritarian to compassionate and human. His comic theme tune, which is heard earlier when he walks to church, prepares the audience for the transformation. Like the best soundtracks of Bernard Hermann, the music of Victor Young exists as alternative narrative and provides added characterisation. Stella By Starlight was the theme tune of the movie. It became a jazz standard and was covered by greats like Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon and Ella Fitzgerald.
The British sensibility is retained despite a cast that mixes British and American actors. For the down to earth British of the past, health was more important than enlightenment. In the film curiosity is a means to an end and not an important value. The doctor in the village plays an unusual and more important role than normal. His curiosity is valued because he will make people healthy and able to enjoy the blessed English countryside in which the brother and sister had appeared as dots in the opening shot. Not just the doctor but everyone in the film is concerned about the health of someone else. Most worry about Stella but she worries about her grandfather. At one point the welfare of the dog and cat are discussed. Pamela Fitzgerald the sister of Roderick even worries that the ghost might be suffering. In the early part of his career the actor Ray Milland was a casting alternative to Cary Grant. When young, Milland was handsome and was good at being balanced and healthy. Grant personified this British quality for American cinema audiences. Before him Sherlock Holmes had an impact on readers because his sensibility challenged British tradition. The intellectual curiosity of Holmes meant strange insecurity and poor health, which was why he needed his Doctor Watson. Nobody ever considered Grant for the part of Holmes, but he would have been perfect in The Uninvited.
The apparitions that threaten the people in The Uninvited are inside the house and modest. At the end of the film a spirit appears in a spectral form as mist. Lewis Allen the director wanted the ghost to remain unseen but the image and special effect works. The ghost is threatening but also tortured and frustrated. The other effects consist of loud noises, flowers that wilt, restless pets, flickering candle flames and what the actors tell us about the change in temperature. The ghost wants to force Stella over the precipitous cliff at the bottom of the garden but there are no threats of mutilation and gory destruction. No one watching the film will doubt that Roderick will protect Stella and prevail. Nevertheless the film has chilling moments. The stylish photography, shadows that dwarf the actors and careful timing maintain the tension. James Agee wrote two classic books in his lifetime, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death In The Family and the script of Night Of The Hunter. He was a tough critic but he was compelled to count the 35 tingles the film gave him. Most of us are not that sensitive but The Uninvited does scare audiences. Martin Scorsese and Guillermo del Toro both rate the film as exceptional. There is a moment in the climax when the French windows blow open. This should be a tame thrill but it makes the audience jump. The strength of the movie, and the reason that it affects viewers, is that its uncomplicated heroes are vulnerable to surprise. Their incurious natures are forced to face the inexplicable. We do not think they will die but we are afraid for them. The potential for trauma haunts and tests not just Stella but her confident friends.
The film is based on the novel Uneasy Freehold, which was written by the Irish historian Dorothy McCardle. Apart from having appeal for estate agents the title also mocks modest middle class ambition. McCardle was an Irish Republican and a feminist. She wrote an account of the Irish War of Independence and later criticised the Irish Free State for the slow emancipation of women. The novel and the film have elements that also exist in Rebecca. A young naïve girl falls in love with an older man, an older woman is obsessed with a previous beautiful companion and the history of the house weighs down on everyone. Both Rebecca and The Uninvited are influenced by the creations of Bronte in Jane Eyre. McCardle would have been sympathetic to the feminist ambition of Charlotte Bronte. She leans on the plot of Jane Eyre to explain why the ghosts haunt the house. The Uninvited, though, has surprises, and the denouement has a satisfying revelation. Miss Holloway the villain is like Mrs Danvers in Rebecca but she is not as narrow as the fierce housekeeper that du Maurier imagined. The mistakes of Miss Holloway are human and, when she remembers the possibly lesbian bond between her and the dead beautiful companion, she is both sympathetic and defiant. Her name, though, is significant. Miss Holloway has progressed by creating a prison for those she thinks she is helping.
The actress Ruth Hussey was a smart wisecracking reporter in The Philadelphia Story. In The Uninvited she plays Pamela Fitzgerald. It is obvious Hussey has brains but, because of the English accent and the script, she is subdued. Unlike her brother there is no evidence that she has a job or needs one. The Uninvited mixes romance and horror. The two men who discover the truth about the ghosts will also claim their future wives. Both men are older than their women. This gap in age is acknowledged in the film. When the sister is critical of the interest Roderick has for Stella, he responds, ‘Stop sending her back to school. Stella is twenty.’ Feminists, though, have expressed concerns about the film. When she played the part, Gail Russell was the same age as Stella. Russell was a tragic case. Insecure and shy she used alcohol to hide her nerves when performing. This began during the filming of The Uninvited. Russell is not just twenty years old. She is a very young and awkward girl. Innocence is important for both character and plot. Russell, though, is not ready for marriage. Outside the movie Russell was not ready for anything. Her last movie appearance occurred when she was thirty-six years old. By then her beauty was tarnished, and she died in the same year she made her final film. Four years earlier Russell, when drunk, had driven her car into the window of a coffee shop. Hussey has tougher fibre but has to settle for a husband that wears glasses. Feminist critics have seen the women as too dependent on male power. They have a point but, although the men in The Uninvited are capable of action, Roderick and the doctor need the support of women to survive and face what really frightens them, the inexplicable. Hussey smoking a cigarette in the dark and explaining to her brother what is happening inside the house may not qualify as equality and emancipation. Impressive, though, it is.
Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His next book Choke Bay will be available this summer. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.