Peter Godfrey, 1947
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, Alexis Smith, Nigel Bruce
“We all die sooner or later.”
Painter Geoffrey Carroll shocks his girlfriend, Sally Morton, when she learns during their vacation together that he married. He tries to explain that his wife is ill and he’s seeking a divorce, but Sally leaves him anyway. Obsessed with her, Carroll goes home to his wife and young daughter, Beatrice, and kills his wife with poisoned milk. He paints a lovely, but disturbing picture of her as an angel of death. Sometime in the future, Carroll marries Sally and they move to her imposing, Gothic-style home in England. They are soon visited by Sally’s ex-boyfriend and Carroll expresses jealousy, though his eye begins to wander as he is introduced to the lovely Cecily. They quietly begin an affair and soon Sally falls ill. Her doctor assumes it is nerves, but Beatrice reveals that her mother had the same symptoms just before her death…
Upon its release, The Two Mrs. Carrolls was maligned due to its similarity to other films being made during the same period: Conflict (1945), where Bogart kills his wife to be with her younger sister (played by Alexis Smith, who oddly co-stars as Cecily in this film), Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), about a man who may or may not be trying to kill his wife, Dragonwyck (1946), a Gothic-style melodrama with Vincent Price starring as a man who poisons his wife to marry another woman, and Gaslight (1944) with Ingrid Bergman, where a man attempts to drive his wife insane and keeps her shut up in her spooky ancestral home. There are also obvious comparisons to Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), where a new bride is haunted and psychologically terrorized by the specter of her husband’s deceased, and to The Spiral Staircase (1945), where a disabled young woman is terrorized by a serial killer in an old dark house on the night of a terrific storm. Though completed in mid-‘1945, The Two Mrs. Carrolls was delayed two years because of these obvious similarities to other films.
There are also some obvious literary influences – Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” and Jane Eyre – but, unlike critics and audiences from the ‘40s, I don’t think this devalues The Two Mrs. Carrolls. There are also some references to Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard,” about the French nobleman who kills his wives and locks them in a secret room. Carroll doesn’t lock bodies in a secret room, but he does have a locked study where he keeps his paintings – namely the painting of his wife that he is planning to kill. This relates it to Edgar Ulmer’s (Detour) Bluebeard (1944) – a horror film about a painter by day and serial killer by night, who kills women that he finds beautiful – and to Fritz Lang’s later The Secret Beyond the Door (1948), a film noir retelling of “Bluebeard.” The paintings, which are so critical to Carroll’s psychosis, are reminiscent of Laura (1944), another film where a painting of a dead woman is critical to the film’s visual world, and the horror-melodrama hybrid The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), where the painting has visual and literal weight.
Though it is flawed – the middle section lags, there are some very talky scenes, and Bogart’s sheer presence distracts from his role – The Two Mrs. Carrolls is a fascinating part of the cinematic dialogue surrounding the changing role of women in American life in the ‘40s. While film noir largely dealt with this threatening shift in feminine freedoms and priorities through the femme fatale, horror and melodrama presented a version of the Victorian/Gothic hysterical woman, the perpetually helpless, shrieking victim. Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity) is not an obvious choice for this type of role, which is evident in the fact that though Sally is dressed like Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (thanks to some lovely costume design from the great Edith Head), she doesn’t project the same sort of innocence or sexually nervous energy. Stanwyck is exuberant early in the film, throwing herself in Carroll’s lap, kissing him passionately, and otherwise giving every indication that they have (or had) a healthy sexual relationship.
In what is perhaps a nod to her work in film noir, Stanwyck brandishes a pistol at Carroll when he breaks through her bedroom window with the intent of strangling her to death with a massive curtain cord. It is simply incredible that she doesn’t shoot him and passively falls back against the bed. This is one of the film’s biggest flaws and the scene should have been re-written to accommodate Stanwyck’s vibrant, independent presence. On the other hand, her healthy sexual energy makes Carroll’s jealousy more believable and there are absolute layers of sexual obsession, infidelity, and jealous throughout the film. She marries him even though she knows he cheated on his first wife (with her) and gleefully welcomes her ex-boyfriend to their home. She even seems to tolerate his infidelity with Cecily, though the degree to which she knows about their affair is unclear.
Alexis Smith was a good choice for the predatory Cecily, who befriends Sally in order to have an affair with her husband. Though Smith played an innocent in Conflict, here she fully embraces the role of femme fatale, which is again emphasized by some wonderful costumes. In her first scene, she’s all in white, which is quickly exchanged for suggestive black gowns with enormous fur coats, emphasizing her animalistic, lustful nature. It’s a shame she wasn’t given more screen time or a meatier role. The young Anne Carter, who is excellent as Carroll’s daughter Beatrice, is also worth mentioning. She manages to upstage Bogart in a scene or two and her acceptance of her mother’s death – and her father’s obvious psychosis – is disturbing. Carter also starred in the excellent, underrated Curse of the Cat People, another film that is haunted by a man’s dead ex-wife.
Aside I said earlier, Bogart’s persona is somewhat distracting. He is excellent in the film’s conclusion and is given a chance to go full crazy. He is convincingly frightening as he impulsively forms a plan to kill Sally once and for all. He’s not bad in the role, but was essentially working against himself. A more unknown actor would have been a better fit, but it’s nice to see Bogart and Stanwyck in their only film together. Nigel Bruce (Dr. Warson alongside Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes) also makes a delightful, if comic appearance as the family doctor – he has a similar role in Suspicion.
Like The Spiral Staircase, The Two Mrs. Carrolls is a mixture of film noir, melodrama, and horror. The film’s central character (Bogart) is effectively a serial killer. The incredible house has some wonderfully Gothic atmosphere. Sally becomes a prisoner here and Carrolls turns into a monster. The camera creeps around the house, lingering on locked doors, dark corners, heavy curtains that blot out natural light, and shadowy halls. There are some lovely transitions between similar shots of bells and roses – images of femininity, sexuality, marriage, which are contrasted by frequent shots of a violent, raging storm that persists for nearly the whole film. Director Peter Godfrey was also responsible for The Woman in White (1948), which had a similar atmosphere and also concerns a painter and a dead woman.
Though The Two Mrs. Carrolls is flawed, it’s absolutely fascinating and is worthy of repeat viewing. Available on DVD, this will be a rental for some, but will please fans of the films I mentioned above and anyone who enjoys the intersection between melodrama, the Gothic, and horror, such as Rebecca, Gaslight, The Lodger, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Suspicion.