A Woman’s Vengeance (1948)
Director: Zoltan Korda
Starring: Charles Boyer, Ann Blyth, Jessica Tandy
Plot: Based on the novel “The Gioconda Smile” by Aldous Huxley, Henry Maurier is at odds with his ill neurotic wife, Emily, and finds solace in his friend Janet and his mistress Doris. It looks as if the situation is going to get nasty when he’s caught by his sponge of a brother-in-law with Doris on a night-out. However, his wife suddenly passes away from natural causes allowing him to marry Doris. Guilt is aroused when a post-mortem reveals that Emily in fact died from arsenic poisoning – Henry is put on trial and his very life hangs in the balance.
I must confess that the first thing that comes to mind when I try to describe this film is: ‘outrageously sexist’. But, as a melodrama from the 1940s, it is what it is, and Zoltan Korda’s careful character development of a gaggle of hysterical women in his yarn of lust and revenge is incredibly entertaining and a thumping good watch. And, to be honest, my enjoyment was quite a surprise as the initial setting didn’t appeal to my tastes at all – Emily, the invalid wife (played in all her high-strung glory by Rachel Kempson) is presented as an absolute nut-job who you want to throttle after only 5 minutes of screen-time, and middle-aged Henry (Charles Boyer) leaves a bad-taste in your mouth, especially after finding out he has an 18 year old girl on the side (Ann Blyth) as well as casually flirting with all other women in his social circle, including the intelligent yet vulnerable Janet (Jessica Tandy). What further irked me is that from the off-set it seemed all the women in the movie were either detestable or flimsy: Emily, Henry’s wife, was fussy, a narcissist, and screechy, so it was a surprise that she wasn’t already 6 feet under by the beginning of the movie as her personality alone would drive her into an early grave; Caroline Braddock (Mildred Natwick), her nurse, was a plain (and pardon the turn-of phrase) man-hating bitch; Doris the mistress was for all intents and purposes a silly little girl; and Janet was a bit of a sap. I mean… how obviously was this flick written by a man?
But, once the plot gets going with Emily seemingly being bumped off, the film completely grips you as the hysteria of the women is whacked up to 11, sucking you into a whodunit with oh-so-enjoyable catastrophic results. I really enjoyed witnessing the character development as the very unlikable became oh so watchable, and the uncharismatic transform into amazingly compelling beings. After the shock discovery of Emily’s apparent poisoning, you do feel smug at the pickle Henry has gotten himself into. His first wife, from what we see of her, is absolutely awful, but it is still very bad taste to jump into the sheets with another woman before she’s barely cold in her grave – the man-whore is getting what he deserves. But, as the situation quickly goes south, you can’t help but be moved by his frustrations, especially as his calm suave demeanour breaks and the warm-blooded human comes out; even his beloved wife doesn’t believe he’s not a murderer! By the end of the movie, you can easily forgive his grievances as he has now become a victim that resigns to his fate in an almost saintly manner, despite him not being guilty of the crime. Even Doris, his new wife, is transformed into a noble, almost Virgin Mary like figure, after her unbearable childishness and melodrama throughout most of the movie. The most entertaining of them all is Janet, who starts off as the under-appreciated friend, always ready to give Henry an ear as he vents about the pig-headedness he has to put up with from his wife and then lets the freak out when she gets the first chance to be with Henry alone after Emily’s passing: whilst getting all hot under the collar during a thunderstorm she declares her love for Henry, rejoicing that they can finally be with each other (because of all the chemistry they’ve shared for so long). You then witness the very moment she dies inside as Henry awkwardly introduces her to his younger, much prettier newly-wedded wife. But she does take the insult like all respectable spinsters past their prime are expected to, selflessly befriending her rival and laughing off the whole situation. During Henry’s trial she at first is meek and defends Henry as much as she can, but as the conclusion of the trial runs near, she appears to be deeply affected. She pours over the newspapers documenting the cases and seems genuinely worried for Henry’s poor prognosis. However, as Henry’s guilt is sealed, she completely changes to become aggressive, paranoid and vindictive. with a dash of good old fashioned British melodrama – her hate-filled rants on sex and other women, along with her crazed maniacal laughter – meaning that never has watching someone’s descent into insanity been so utterly enjoyable. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”.
With today’s modern soap-operas revolving around coarse and violent confrontations between repugnant and ugly characters – this refined, classy, distinctively British piece makes murder and revenge look so glamorous and beautiful. The central characters’ journeys into hell are beautifully framed by two constants: Dr James Libbard (Cedric Hardwicke) and the aforementioned dreaded Nurse Braddock. The doctor is for the most part the passive observer and the voice of reason, dropping the film’s most sobering nuggets of wisdom … and most severe burns: “Some women cry as easily as a pig grunts. And enjoy it very nearly as much.” Sexism aside, he refreshingly knocks common sense into the emotional messes that are the main players of the movie, I think… to much of the audience’s relief. Nurse Braddock serves to continually incense you by her spouting of absolute rubbish and prejudice at all the inappropriate moments, adding to the emotional whirlwind that becomes so fun to get sucked into.
One thing I particularly enjoyed was the use of religious references and imagery to give a heightened sense of gravitas to what is essentially a domestic story: the saintly and demonic transformations, the lamb being led to slaughter, the sheep dumb before it’s shearers, the serenity of “Our Lady”… I could go on. There is surprising intelligence in the composition of scenes regarding this – when Janet visits Henry in prison, she appears a slight from a window of above shining upon Henry who has fallen from grace but is actually innocent – she pours cold hatred upon him and then leaves him in a state of despair – heaven is closed. It’s a nice, cheeky touch as this film is very much an attempt to push the envelope in terms of sexy, steamy cinema (Nurse Braddock even says the word ‘sex’ – shocking!) I mean, it has some pretty risqué themes for the forties: infidelity, forbidden romances, suppressed sexual urges, and crimes of passion. It becomes downright controversial at its almost condoning of adultery, so it is so wonderfully audacious to play with such strong religious tones … very naughty indeed. Such boldness by film-makers can be very hard not to appreciate.
Charles Boyer, an absolute heavyweight in romantic roles, was a good choice as the lead. His distinctive sensual growl makes it believable that he is capable of unwittingly breaking women’s hearts. He exhibits all the passion and flirting that you only see in movies from Hollywood’s first golden age, which is always enjoyable to watch. He’s okay when he ventures beyond the romantic range although he’s a bit flat in some of the more emotional moments, such as his exclamation to Doris that he regrets marrying her (you can’t believe her reaction to this statement as there is hardly any convincing emotion in his delivery), but then excels like mad in others, such as all the prison scenes – he’s very inconsistent. Both Rachel Kempson and Jessica Tandy provide some lung-popping performances as the hysterical women who really make this movie. However, they do verge upon the ridiculous and the unbelievable, which I suppose adds to the melodrama but also definitely causes some unintentional giggles. The character of Doris in comparison to the others is pretty unremarkable but this is more to do with the writing of her character rather than Ann Blyth’s performance, as she wasn’t allowed to go beyond simply going mushy over Charles Boyer’s Henry.
The sticking point is that the film is so sexist that it may seem distasteful to a modern audience: as a woman, it is frustrating to see such shocking clichés and stereotypes of women used against us, especially in a context such as murder. It is plain condescending to suggest that women are so easily affected by emotions and that they would be driven to near insanity because of simply being rejected. I admit this is affected by my own personal beliefs but I find it a bit self-congratulatory to have the relationship between Doris and Henry be presented as being the most pure and true in all the movie, despite the huge age gap (which is also creepy). Even though all the moments of hysteria are absolutely hilarious and made for brilliant viewing, I feel that also detracts from the movie – it’s supposed to be a serious drama, so laughing at it because of how ridiculous it is indicates that it somewhat fails in that area.
All in all, the film is truly ridiculous in its presentation of women. I know it is very easy to laugh at older movies – tastes change and develop very quickly so it’s easy for movies to become dated – but it is hard for me to imagine anyone taking this movie seriously at any point, especially with the massive over-acting. Janet was extremely entertaining, but a thunderstorm scene was just too funny for me to have remained a serious viewer. Also the worn-out stereotypes used throughout, especially those imposed upon the women, suggested laziness and a lack of originality.
It is a stylish melodrama full of huge characters and tantalising twists and turns to keep anyone entertained throughout, but it is a product of its time and the presentation of its themes can sometimes be distasteful or simply laughable.