Another Man’s Poison (1951) starring Bette Davis, is a movie that I’ve been curious about and wanted to see for a lot of reasons: it was Davis’s first film with Gary Merrill after they were married, it was her follow-up to All About Eve (1950), her fourth and last picture with Now, Voyager (1942) director Irving Rapper, was co-produced by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and featured actor-playwright Emlyn Williams, who had written the play upon which Davis’ film The Corn is Green (1945) was based.
After we’re introduced to Janet Frobisher (Davis), a mystery writer capable of devising fictional puzzles that stump even the most avid genre fans, she’s sucked into a real thriller partly of her own making. Her husband returned after a long absence, most unwelcome because he’s an abusive ex-con and murderer, and also because Davis is in love with her secretary’s fiancé (Barbara Murray and Anthony Steel play this younger couple). Janet manages to eliminate her husband with a chemical “compound” prescribed for her horse, but then the fugitive George (Merrill) arrives to complicate things. George was her husband’s partner in crime, and after some blackmail, threats and inconvenient visitors, Janet and George end up pretending to be husband and wife to cover up the murder of her husband, and to give him a safe refuge and new identity. Neither of them count on the intelligence and persistence of the nosy mystery fan and veterinarian living next door, Dr. Henderson (Williams, excellent), who inevitably pieces together the clues about the couple’s shady activities.
Another Man’s Poison has a stage-bound feel and a puzzle plot much like Sleuth (1972) or Deathtrap (1982), where a writer is caught up in a twisty, darkly comic duel of wits with an adversary, and it mostly happens in one location, here an isolated old house (there are horseback rides where Merrill encounters the ever-present Williams, and where Davis romances Steel). The plot turns and reverses often, and depends on some implausible details, which can be forgiven because of the entertaining performances. The colourful characters surprise and bludgeon each other with what they know but don’t tell, the lies they buy about who was dead when, and the realities of how implicated and co-dependent they’ve become. All the deception leads to the big surprise ending which hinges on someone knocking on the wrong door in the misty moors, and some mixed drinks. The finale leaves Davis laughing bitterly at her choices and her cosmic bad luck; it’s a nice cap to her feisty performance. She and Merrill, well-matched nasties, are locked in an escalating battle, and she makes the most of every display of scheming, storming in and out of rooms, making heart-eyes at her young lover, staring daggers at rivals and enemies, frantically hiding evidence, and threatening death to anyone who would even think of harming her beloved horse Fury, the only thing she really cares for.
Another Man’s Poison was based on the play Deadlock by Leslie Sands, and was adapted for the screen by Val Guest.
This post is part of the Bette Davis blogathon hosted by Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.