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    A Dark Directorial Debut

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Newly ensconced at Twentieth Century Fox in the fall of 1943, writer/producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote the following commentary about a soon-to-be-published Gothic novel the studio was considering for purchase and adaptation: “I think careful consideration of this will reveal less to this than meets the eye. The love story is apt to be very unsatisfying in its conclusion. The young doctor cannot be half so glamorous or exciting as his murderous heel/rival. I can imagine no woman preferring the hero to the villain, in this case, for either bed or breakfast. The melodrama must inevitably conflict and suffer in comparison with Rebecca and Suspicion. The political and economic applications are naïve, oversimple, and made unexciting by the times in which we live. The background is new. The opportunities for production values are exciting and the cost be will overwhelming!” As recounted in Kenneth L. Geist’s 1978 Mankiewicz biography Pictures Will Talk, that appraisal referred to a book by Anya Seton, a writer who would make a bestselling specialty of historical romances that she considered “biographical novels;” sure enough Dragonwyck (1944 in book form, 1946 on screen) would be a publishing hit and, by the way, the skeptical Mankiewicz’s first project as a director, assigned to him by his idol Ernst Lubitsch, also a recent arrival at Fox, who would supervise the neophyte’s work while recuperating from a heart attack. Creative differences would blight the Lubitsch-Mankiewicz arrangement, with Lubitsch having his name removed from the finished product. But the work of the names and faces that remained on screen would be sufficient to ensure Dragonwyck’s durability as an impeccably textured period piece, a juicy thriller of obsessive and scoundrelly behavior (delicately laced with touches of the supernatural) and a smartly crafted model of expert performances in service of a well-fashioned Mankiewicz script. 

    One surefire asset going for this brooding tale of an 1844 Connecticut farm girl (Tierney’s dreamy Miranda) drawn into the sinister household of a distant relation, a wealthy land-owning patroon with a haunted family legacy, is that for this fourth on-screen teaming of the strikingly lovely Gene Tierney and the commanding Vincent Price, as a result of the previous Laura (1944) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945), both enjoyed a great working relationship having already mastered the melodramatic complexities of twisted love and maladjusted attraction; in the earlier films, she pulled the strings while he was an enraptured victim of her allure. Dragonwyck would reverse their positions, and Price, who would evaluate his work here as a particular screen career favorite, is the dominant personality, in historian David Thomson’s view “anticipating Poe” as the autocratic and melancholic Nicholas Van Ryn. Price later told interviewer Tom Weaver: “Dragonwyck was a very difficult part to play, because he’s a crazy man, a monomaniac, and yet didn’t know it. So it was a challenge to play it.” Price offers his thoughts on the experience in this brief YouTube audio conversation excerpted here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IbD4J5OO_n0. The first-rate supporting cast assembled by Mankiewicz delivered conviction and captivation in abundance: Walter Huston and Anne Revere deliver both hardness and heart as Miranda’s parents; Glenn Langan as a wary, independent local doctor who tries to defend the unworldly Miranda and the local tenant-farmer citizenry from Van Ryn’s darker, reactionary impulses; Spring Byington, effectively cast against her usual lovable persona as a household servant who’s seen and heard too much; Vivienne Osborne as Van Ryn’s self-absorbed first wife, destined for a lethal fall from grace; Connie Marshall as the Van Ryn’s daughter, in an unusually affecting performance by a child actress coping with a ghost-haunted, love-deprived household; and Jessica Tandy, as a disabled maid who brings a welcome breath of warmth and spunk into the tale’s harrowing final act. As the debuting work of a director marshaling the forces of top-flight design and production talents, Dragonwyck manages its hybrid blend of period romance and insinuating horror eloquently and gracefully. Utilizing Fox’s lustrous 2017 4K restoration transfer, Twilight Time’s lavishly appointed hi-def Blu-ray also includes an Audio Commentary with Film Historian Steve Haberman and Documentary Filmmaker Constantine Nasr, an Isolated Music Track of Alfred Newman’s vibrant and innovative score, documentaries on the movie itself as well as Tierney and Price, plus two Audio-Only radio dramatizations. Enter the spellbinding portal of Dragonwyck on January 23. Preorders open January 10.