Fortune hunter Dirk Bogarde preys on rich older women until one of them proves to be his match.
In this 1955 movie, Dirk Bogarde plays a psychotic fortune hunting gigolo, a layabout after the good life and “somebody to pay his passage.” He’s terribly charming but also slimy and devious, at times so confident that he’s brazen about his intentions. He convinces his much older wife, played by Mona Washbourne, that he loves her, but he can’t fool us or Washbourne’s lawyer (Robert Flemyng). Not long after we meet the couple, Bogarde kills Washbourne and stages the scene to look like an accidental death, possibly even suicide. Bogarde is cleared of any wrongdoing by an inquest, but Flemyng remains suspicious. But Bogarde’s bigger problem is that he made the mistake of murdering Washbourne right before she changed her will in his favour, so he ends up with no inheritance to show for his crime or his time as the doting husband (the money’s all been left to her sister who lives too far away for Bogarde to romance).
What’s a fortune hunter to do but troll the seaside resorts for another rich widow to fleece? He soon spies legs and expensive jewelry belonging to Margaret Lockwood, a sassy, no-nonsense (crude in his words), older woman who lets herself be charmed but is smart enough to have him “sign on the dotted line,” and then keep the relationship “pound for pound,” that is, sharing none of her money and keeping him limited to the fortune he lies about having. He’s met his match in Lockwood, a sharp and initially unsentimental dame who has Bogarde and his intentions figured out, and even seems to have some of her own. Soon a newer, richer woman, a “plumper bird” (Kay Walsh) comes along, and she’s very interested in Bogarde. That’s when Lockwood gets jealous, realizes she actually loves him, and that’s also when Bogarde has to plan her death. At this point there are plenty of twists: some truly surprise because you think you see them coming but they go another path entirely, others are simple and more predictable but bring justice (involving some Angel Face-style car maintenance).
For Bogarde this role came in between his Doctor series and romantic roles, and was a return to the type of disturbing villain he’d played in The Blue Lamp five years earlier. Handsome and gentlemanly as he was, he always did well as a weirdo and this is one of his better such parts. One of the things I found effective about his performance was his lack of humour; as high as he can turn up the charm when he needs to, he still can’t hide that he’s essentially an unlikable brat and sourpuss. Not only does he never react to a joke (and Lockwood makes many good ones), he seems to resent anyone making them, and is threatened by humour, which reveals a lot about his disdain for women and inability to engage as a normal human. Yet he has a high hysteric laugh that marks him as a nut like some of the best noir villains.
This was Lockwood’s last lead in a film (her last feature was the musical The Slipper and the Rose in 1976)* and what a brilliant screen career. She was a fabulous actress who could handle everything from a haughty noblewoman or villainess to an innocent spunky heroine; she’s definitely someone you need to discover if all you know of her is Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Lockwood continued on television, and in fact in 1956 she reprised her role when this film was remade as a BBC TV movie, with Derek Farr playing Bogarde’s part. She’s really good here, fearless and bold but ultimately a little heartbroken, and she brings a lot of edge and humour as she gets caught up in this strange dance with Bogarde. Kathleen Harrison plays the loyal but dim maid who’s treated shabbily by Bogarde (I just saw her in The Ghoul), and Walsh, another fine actress, once wife of director David Lean, is also great as the mysterious and very classy woman shopping for homes in the neighbourhood, who upsets everything with her interest in Bogarde and her promises to take him on his dream trip around the world.
Cast a Dark Shadow was directed by Lewis Gilbert, who among many films did the 007 movies You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, and was last seen at this blog directing Ferry to Hong Kong. Cinematography is by Jack Asher, who was to become known for his work on Hammer horror, and he certainly makes this movie appropriately dark and gloomy, perfect for a mansion haunted by a murder and inhabited by a soulless predator with firm intentions to kill again, and who sees his time in this house as imprisonment. The source material was the play Murder Mistaken, written by actress turned writer Janet Green. Murder Mistaken was first performed in London in 1953, and when it appeared on American stages it was retitled Gently Does It, neither of which have the same noirish, nefarious feel of the movie title. Green was a busy writer who worked on many screenplays including The Long Arm, a great crime movie I reviewed here, and also Victim, in which Bogarde starred. Green also wrote the play Matilda Shouted Fire, which was adapted to film as the Doris Day thriller Midnight Lace. Cast a Dark Shadow is not a very well known suspenser, but worth seeing for its handful of fine actors doing good work in the story of a pretty boy (and pretty crazy boy) with deadly intentions.
*thanks to Terry (see comments) for the correction re Lockwood’s last film