Ivy

Film noir has been featured pretty regularly on this site over the years, and anyone who has visited here will likely be aware that I tend towards a reasonably flexible interpretation of the criteria used for inclusion in that category. I wouldn’t dream of trying to persuade those with more purist tastes to come round to my way of thinking, instead I prefer to just present what titles I feel belong according to my personal  (and wholly unscientific) checklist. As such, I’ve always been content to list westerns, color productions and period pieces. It’s to that latter variety that I want to turn our attention today, the relatively small selection of films sometimes referred to as gaslight noir. Ivy (1947) is a title which eluded me for many years so I was pleased to get my hands on a copy recently to see how it fared.

The film opens with a foretaste of what will follow, in fact it involves the title character played by Joan Fontaine stealing surreptitiously along an Edwardian terrace to have her fortune told. That sense of the illicit, of things that “nice” people should not do is further heightened when the seer (a typically eccentric Una O’Connor) alludes to the lady’s unfaithful behavior, and then mutters darkly about the tragedy to come after she departs. This is all very melodramatic stuff, but that’s the nature of the tale being told. It’s soon made clear that Ivy is in an unhappy place in life, married to a jobless milquetoast, Jervis (Richard Ney), and living in correspondingly straitened circumstances while also keeping her options open by toying with the affections of Doctor Gretorex (Patric Knowles). Of course Ivy is nothing if not ambitious, and when an encounter with the extremely wealthy Miles Rushworth (Herbert Marshall) offers the opportunity for even greater riches, well you can probably see where this is all headed. It’s only a matter of time before Ivy realizes her hopes of a comfortable existence would be better served if certain figures were removed from her life. The only question that remains is how best to manipulate people and events to achieve this end.

Ivy is an adaptation (by Charles Bennett) of a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, who is probably best know as the writer of The Lodger. The story unfolds during 1909, established by the fact that Bleriot’s successful flight across the Channel is woven into the narrative early on, and that means we get one of those idealized Hollywood imaginings of London in bygone days – a piece of pure fantasy to be sure but one featuring the kind of sets and art direction that just ooze atmosphere. We’re still firmly in the studio era here and Universal-International always had a knack  for conjuring up these kinds of cinematic neverlands. Sam Woods directed smoothly but the fact the film was produced by William Cameron Menzies and shot by Russell Metty surely accounts for that characteristically attractive look.

I tend to think of Joan Fontaine as an actress best suited to less proactive roles, probably stemming from my first seeing her in Rebecca and Suspicion, the two films she made for Hitchcock. I remember not being especially impressed by her work as an unsympathetic character in Nicholas Ray’s Born to Be Bad, but she is much more effective in this one and is genuinely convincing as a scheming and two-faced woman determined to clamber over anyone to get what she wants. In fact, she’s easily the most dominant  figure throughout – Ney’s character is the epitome of weakness, Knowles is mainly about pained nobility and repressed emotions, while Marshall (easily the most talented one) has limited screen time but does make an impact whenever he is on view. As ever in productions from this period, the supporting cast is a pleasure in itself. Cedric Hardwicke is quietly engaging as the Scotland Yard man whose tenacity and calm thoroughness acts as a stabilizing influence, and there are familiar faces such as Sara Allgood and Paul Cavanagh appearing in key roles.

Ivy was, in my experience anyway, a difficult film to see for many years but I recently came across a DVD release in Italy which not only makes the movie available but also has it looking quite well. The picture quality is generally strong and the image looks crisp and sharp for the most part. However, I had the impression the sound might be slightly out of sync at the beginning, but it seems to improve later – of course it may be that I simply became accustomed to it. The film itself is a very entertaining period noir with that polished studio appearance that can be a real draw when done properly. The cast, especially the leading lady, is more than competent and the only issue I had was that I thought the opening – setting the scene and establishing the complex relationships – perhaps ran longer than was strictly necessary. Having said that, it’s a solid film and one I’m pleased to have finally gotten round to seeing.

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23 thoughts on “Ivy

  1. Super review as always. Ivy is one of my favorite Joan Fontaine roles. She could really sink her teeth in when she had a chance at a meaty role.
    The novel is a superb study of a sociopath. I highly recommend both film and novel.

    PS: I love Fontaine in Born to Be Bad. She’s over the top, but so is the screenplay. That is a film loaded with acting talents that saved it from being a crazy potboiler. It’s just a fun melodrama. I think that film is over interpreted these days.

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    • Muriel, I’ve not read anything by Lowndes but that doesn’t mean I’m averse to doing so in the future and I’ll certainly keep the recommendation in mind.

      On Born to Be Bad, I really was not impressed by the film last time I saw it, but that was some years ago now and I’ll freely admit I was partially influenced at the time by a different set of expectations based on the cast and crew. It’s possibly one of those films I need to look at again with adjusted expectations.

      As for Ms Fontaine, I hope to feature another of her films in the (fingers crossed) not too distant future.

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    • Yes, I thought the first reel or so was something of an information dump and I felt it slowed the pace as a result, but the fact is you do need to know who’s who and the relationships involved for the rest of it to work. Everything feels much smoother after that
      You’re right about Wood and Menzies and the films they both worked on. I should have mentioned that pairing a bit more – titles like Our Town and For Whom the Bell Tolls do achieve quite a remarkable and distinctive appearance.

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      • It was fascinating to see the impact Menzies had on Wood’s output after their collaboration on GONE WITH THE WIND – I am thinking especially of KING’S ROW (but let’s not forget PRIDE OF THE YANKEES). If I get it shall report back on any inc issues 🙂

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        • Yes, I think you’re right there and Wood became a much more interesting director in his final decade.

          To be honest, I’m not the best person to ask when it comes to audio matters, so I’d be happy to go along with any other opinions in that regard.

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  2. This is a film I have never managed to see. Sounds like the Italian DVD is worth seeking out.

    Good to see you back in (Gaslight) Noir territory, Colin. Happy New Year, by the way!

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    • Happy New Year to you too, Jerry, let’s all hope for a good one!

      As I said, I found this to be an elusive title over the years, one of those that doesn’t even get referenced all that often, let alone shown. By and large, I had a good time with it but of course I like these types of dark melodrama.
      On the DVD, I think the Italian disc is the only option – I’ve certainly not seen it anywhere else.

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  3. Thanks for this Colin, and great to have RTHC back in action BTW. These days, movie blogs have become less stimulating IMO because essentially the same favourite films are discussed over and over as they proceed through various release formats and until eventually surfacing on blu ray. This is interesting but far less interesting than discussing genuinely rare films that have not even had a decent DVD release. IVY is a great and almost-forgotten picture with a stellar cast and stunning production values that’s worthy of a Criterion or MOC restoration. I seem to remember one scene in particular where the magnificently malevolent Joan Fontaine is shot through textured lace and accompanied by the sinister strains of a harpsichord as she prowls with evil intent. This is really top-drawer stuff! I’ve ordered the Italian DVD based on your recommendation. Hopefully it will be an upgrade on my old grey-market copy. Another essential Gaslight Noir, SO EVIL MY LOVE, has also been stranded in the digital limbo of inadequate DVD releases but perhaps the soon-to-be-released Twilight Time Blu rays of MY COUSIN RACHEL and DRAGONWCK will sell enough units for other companies to take a punt on remastered Gaslight Noir titles. It’s slightly depressing that any number of daft old creature features, Italian slashers and even juvenile Roy Rogers pictures slip effortlessly onto the Blu Ray release schedules while pictures like IVY struggle for just a decent outing on DVD.

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    • A mere glance at the cast and crew of Ivy should be an indication that the film is going to be a polished and classy affair, the kind production I’d be amazed if there weren’t a market for. In the end, everything does come down to money and profitability but I find myself in agreement with your point about material that is made available, some of which leaves me wondering how many units are realistically going to be shifted. Still, maybe those doing the selecting know better.
      This all reminds me of the chat that ran here recently about the number of Universal crime/noir features that have yet to be released anywhere; Ivy is from the same studio but it is at least possible to see the film now.

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  4. Great work Colin. This is a bit of a hidden gem and to my mind definitely Noir, with some really great Expressionist camerawork – the little corridor between the Doctor’s apartment and his surgery (where he liaises with Ivy) has the cramped, closed in quality. Fontaine’s fine, a lovely cross between her submissive character in REBECCA and the one she plays in BORN TO BE BAD, but the supporting cast is excellent. My choice is probably Sir Cedric, who does a lot with relatively scant screen time, and Una is always good value, even in her tiny part here. Best of all for me is that Daniele Amfitheatrof score. Not a composer I know a lot about, especially given his mass of credits, but the musical cues he produces for IVY are especially memorable.

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    • Thanks, Mike. Hardwicke is always impressive, isn’t he? There’s something about his hangdog expression that is so appropriate for the role he plays.
      And I quite agree on the sets and the way they were shot/used – the part where Fontaine is eavesdropping on the interrogation of Knowles by Hardwicke is a superb example of how to shoot close-ups in a tight space.

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  5. I was just about to say thanks for putting this film
    on my radar when I see that no less than “The Doyen Of Dark”
    Mr Nick Beal has even commented-so IVY has got to be
    worthy of anyone’s attention.
    Great write up,as always,and thanks again for bringing the
    ever elusive Mr Beal back onto blogland!!
    I too love those moody Victorian thrillers-in fact only last night
    I watched THE MAD MAGICIAN-which I guess sort of falls into
    that genre. THE MAD MAGICIAN is way below Brahm’s THE LODGER
    and HANGOVER SQUARE but is still good fun.
    I have that fantastic Brahm Fox triple DVD set but must admit
    that I’ve been tempted (but resisted) to upgrade to the
    “stand alone” Blu Ray versions.
    Happy New Year Colin, and great to see RTHC back in
    (regular) business.

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    • Happy New Year, John. Yes, I think you could say the film is worthy of attention, especially for anyone who enjoys these period thrillers.
      The Mad Magician is good fun but more hokey of course. I too have had that Brahm set for years and it’s very good in my opinion, so much so in fact that I’ve not been tempted to upgrade either.

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  6. Thanks Colin,
    I only brought THE MAD MAGICIAN into the
    mix as I enjoyed the setting and photography,
    and of course it reminded me of how great those
    Brahm thrillers were THE MAD MAGICIAN even borrows
    one of the previous films great set pieces (the bonfire)
    The superb Brahm three DVD set was back when Fox
    really cared about fans of vintage movies-now Fox has sold
    out to Disney I wonder if things will change.
    I must admit I did upgrade to Blu Ray the films in the
    Fox Classic Westerns DVD set (THE GUNFIGHTER to follow soon)
    which again was an outstanding release.
    I totally agree with Nick that unheralded films need more
    attention not only from the blogs but also the studios and
    the boutique labels.
    I will take exception with Nick regarding Roy Rogers
    (which is certainly not my thing) as thus far only one of Roy’s
    Republic B Westerns has made it to Blu Ray and Kino Lorber
    must be given some credit to give virtually every genre a
    chance-it’s not as if the market is flooded with B Series
    Westerns in high definition (as opposed to “programmer” type Westerns).
    You are quiet right to mention the high Universal production values
    even on a minor B chiller SHE WOLF OF LONDON they still shine
    through.
    Thanks again for putting IVY on my radar-a film I certainly would have
    totally overlooked.

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    • At one time Fox were about the best of the studios in terms of high quality releases – top-notch transfers, copious extras etc.

      Most studios had a certain “look” which came from the sets that they recycled and altered according to the production. They all have their plus points but I have to confess a particular fondness for the Universal variety, possibly stemming from my love of their 30s horror cycle and then series entries like the Rathbone/Bruce Holmes pictures, and then of course the wonderful Universal-International westerns we love so much.

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    • This particular sub-genre relies heavily on atmosphere, practically runs on it, doesn’t it? And this film sees that aspect exploited to the full.
      I agree on the comeuppance, the ending of the story is most satisfying.

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