Monday, May 2, 2016

Dark Waters (1944)

Franchot as Dr. George Grover in Dark Waters
Dark Waters is a 1944 gothic noir starring Merle Oberon, Franchot, Thomas Mitchell, Elisha Cook Jr., and Fay Bainter. The film was directed by Andre de Toth, who also directed Slattery's Hurricane and House of Wax. Although the video and sound quality is not great on the DVD, I think it's the best available version at the moment. I would love to see this film restored!

Despite the lackluster visual definition, the story, characters, and mood of Dark Waters is top notch.  It is a well-written thriller, with dark turns, creepy characters, and a heartfelt romance. In my film summaries, I make every attempt not to spoil a film for new viewers. Although I won't spoil the ending, I do need to warn you of a spoiler alert ahead. There's one scene in the film that I feel compelled to talk about, because it is one of my favorite moments in a romantic suspense film. Doing so might spoil this scene/the following scenes for you. Now that that's out of the way, let's get to the movie!

On a leisurely European tour, Leslie Calvin (Merle Oberon) survives a World War II ship sinking by the Germans. The attack (which viewers do not see) is harrowing and violent for the gentle Leslie. We first see Leslie in a hospital receiving care for her post-traumatic stress and fragile state. Her attending physician suggests Leslie go recuperate with the support of her family. Since she has no parents or siblings, Leslie sends a telegram to her Uncle Norbert (John Qualen) and Aunt Emily (Fay Bainter). She takes a train to the town in which they live and is surprised when no one is there to pick her up at the station. Although the townspeople have not heard of Norbert and Emily, they all know the large plantation they own. Overwhelmed by her transition into the real world, Leslie faints in the station. Kind country doctor George Grover (Franchot Tone) is there to revive her and delivers her to the remote plantation.

Aunt Emily and Uncle Norbert are surprised to see their niece and act very strangely upon her arrival. There are even some unexpected characters living in the house, a menacing Mr. Sidney (Thomas Mitchell) and his right-hand man Cleeve (Elisha Cook, Jr.) Everyone seems a bit suspicious, even Leslie. When I first watched the film about six months ago, I wondered who onscreen was lying. I knew something was up, but was not sure who to blame. Is Leslie who she says she is? Is this all a hallucination in the psych ward? Are Aunt Emily and Uncle Norbert who they say they are? Are they being controlled by Mr. Sidney and Cleeve? Is Doctor Grover a part of a bigger scheme or does he genuinely care? Is the whole family crazy? A good suspense will force you to ponder these questions and Dark Waters is wonderfully suspenseful. Each time I decided to trust one character, the dialogue and eerie set-up made me question my choice.

Dr. George Grover and Leslie fall in love and it's an appealing match.  As the overwrought out-of-towner and the humble country doctor, Merle and Franchot are superb together. George brings Leslie out of her anxiety when he takes her to visit his patients and to an outdoor dance, but when he asks her to marry him, Leslie loses her composure.

Back on the plantation, Mr. Sidney, Cleeve, and Aunt Emily are all behaving abnormally. When she believes her life is in danger (and the viewer is convinced as well), Leslie calls George to come over.

Warning: Spoiler coming up after these screenshots!

Leslie meets George outside and pleads with him to help her. She tells him that she's certain that her family members are duplicitous and plotting her demise. Leslie's panic is real and Merle is brilliant in this scene. George, however, doesn't believe her! He calmly tells her it's all in her head and writes her a prescription. A prescription! Let me tell you I absolutely yelled, "Franchot, listen to HER! Rescue her!" the first time I watched. George sees that the woman he loves is in total distress and pretty much tells her to is excruciating! Franchot plays this scene with a helpless look, but his character can absolutely help. You begin to feel that perhaps George isn't the romantic hero he seemed earlier. Leslie, feeling as hopeless as I did at this point, walks back to her room, dejected and in despair. George walks into the house and greets Mr. Sidney. George warns him that Leslie is having delusional thoughts and needs total rest.

Franchot and Thomas Mitchell
Leslie is crying in her room when she unfurls the prescription note in her hand. The note reads, "Believe You. S. listening inside. Too dangerous to go now—Stay in your room—back with help right away. I love you—"

I have never been so relieved by a twist in a Tone movie before! "Oh, my God! He knew! He knew! Yes!" is exactly what I exclaimed as I gaped at the screen like a crazy lady. In all seriousness though, this romantic moment simply captured in Leslie's reading of a note and her perfect emotional response to it could not have been written or performed better. It reminds me of the satisfaction I feel when watching (possible spoilers for a couple non-Franchot films here) Cary Grant climb the stairs and rescue the poisoned Ingrid Bergman in Notorious or Mr. Grant realize that Deborah Kerr is indeed the woman who bought the painting in An Affair to Remember. Those Grant moments have always stuck in my memory as being distinctly tender and impassioned at the same time—Franchot's dedication to Merle, revealed in the "prescription", is no less striking and memorable. I could rewatch this scene over and over. 
The prescription!

Stunned Merle
Elated Merle

George redeems his romantic hero status and we know that help is on the way. Wary of the doctor's intentions,  Mr. Sidney sends his lackey Cleeve to rough George up. George plants doubt and suspicion into Cleeve's mind. George suggests that Sidney is using Cleeve and sending him to do his dirty work because he doesn't believe Cleeve is smart enough or strong enough to handle anything more. 

Elisha Cook, Jr.

In the end, Sidney and Cleeve force Leslie and George onto a boat in the dark recesses of swamp country. How are Leslie's aunt and uncle involved? Is sinking survivor Leslie emotionally strong enough to survive being on the boat at all? Is this all a fantasy in the fragile heroine's head? Track down the DVD, find out for yourself, and enjoy this often overlooked gothic noir!

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