Tonight, I finally saw Dragonwyck (Joseph L. Mankiewicz); and in 35mm at New York’s Lincoln Center, what a place to see it. It was introduced by someone at the festival, who said what we all know with not little sadness that “prints are disappearing,” so of course this was a very special treat. It was only unfortunate that I had to sacrifice the chance to see a 35mm print of Barefoot Contessa (1954), screening in a theatre over the road, but given Dragonwyck is one that had been on my hard-to-get list for a long time.
But what a great film. Mankiewicz’s first directorial effort, based on a screenplay he had written, though he had been co-writer on at least twenty films before it. He had received two Academy Award nominations, one for Best Screenplay for Skippy (1931), and one for Best Picture for The Philadelphia Story (1940). He had introduced Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. He was, this means, a very talented man — something that Ernst Lubitsch could sense, as he pushed Mankiewicz into directing his own script despite the latter’s apprehension. Dragonwyck is, though, a remarkably assured film.
At the heart of the story is 18-year-old Miranda Wells, played by 25-year-old Gene Tierney. It isn’t always easy to appear younger in age on screen — even to this day — and such was the case that often young women could seem much older than they were. But Gene Tierney does a remarkable job acting as a woman barely ready to be one. In the first scene, her mother reads a letter received from an unknown source; it turns out to be from a distant relative inviting her to explore a life away from her dinky Connecticut farm, and as Miranda says she dreams of going away her heavy breath is visible beneath her clothing. Never before feeling such excitement, Miranda is unable to contain it. Throughout, Tierney does a number of things that convey she is uncertain, unassured, holds her facial features with a little less firmness as she does in other pictures. In the final scene, in her mourning clothes, she seems much more grown up; she is a widow, after all.
On her first night at Dragonwyck, Miranda reads the poetic lyrics to a tune that the ever sinister Nicholas Van Ryn plays on the harpsichord. She recites, “I dreamt that I dwelt within marble halls.” Her mother later tells her, “You can’t marry a dream, Miranda.” This whole film is portentous, as so many great gothic mysteries are. The oleander, which Van Ryn used to poison his first wife and tries to poison Miranda with, is ominously framed at its first appearance. Lamps glow like crystal balls. Shot by well-known and awarded Arthur C. Miller, who had a long-term contract at Fox but who worked many more years in Hollywood, Dragonwyck follows the dark signature of many gothic melodramas. He captures some of the best thunder-and-lightning photography I’ve ever seen (although that is also the work of the film’s visual effects team) and one of the spookiest staircases in Hollywood history.
And Vincent Price has never been more delightful. His back is so straight. His lips held together so tightly. His voice like velvet. It’s unfortunate that his delightful rejection of Christianity — the bible is nothing but “printed mottos” — had to equate to his being a murderous lunatic, which was less a product of the Code, I imagine, than a commitment to faith. But I’m ready to forgive that for the time being, because look at this staircase.
Also tips to one of my favourite Twentieth-Century Fox sound design teams, W. D. Flick and Roger Heman, Sr.