Sunday, May 06, 2012

Tonight's Movie: The Sign of the Ram (1948) at the Noir City Film Festival

THE SIGN OF THE RAM followed CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE (1945) as the first pairing on today's "double double bill" at the Noir City Film Festival.

THE SIGN OF THE RAM might be described as a Gothic psychodrama, played out in a mansion on the foggy cliffs of Cornwall. I think this was probably my favorite of the 13 films I saw for the very first time at this year's festival.

THE SIGN OF THE RAM marked "The Return to Film of Miss Susan Peters," as noted in the opening credits. Susan Peters was a lovely young MGM actress whose brief career including a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for RANDOM HARVEST (1942); I also particularly enjoyed her in SONG OF RUSSIA (1944) and KEEP YOUR POWDER DRY (1945). Her career was tragically cut short by a hunting accident on New Year's Day, 1945, as I described in my review of her film YOUNG IDEAS (1943); she was paralyzed from the waist down.

THE SIGN OF THE RAM was Peters' only film after the accident, and she's superb as the sweetly manipulative stepmother who gradually reveals fear and loneliness of such depths that she will do anything to keep her stepchildren by her side. Peters is so good that it's quite a shame she was unable to build a career playing parts in a wheelchair, as Lionel Barrymore did for many years; no doubt it's easier to find such roles for a character actor, but Peters really had something special. Her too-short career and early death are a great loss for those who love movies.

The film begins as Sherida Binyon (Phyllis Thaxter) arrives on the Cornish coast to serve as secretary and companion to Leah St. Aubyn (Peters), a wheelchair-bound poetess. Leah lives with her devoted husband Mallory (Alexander Knox) and three stepchildren, Logan (Ross Ford), Jane (Allene Roberts), and Christine (Peggy Ann Garner).

Initially all seems sweetness and light, as the beautiful Leah appears content with her life; the St. Aubyns all worship Leah, who was crippled in a freak accident while saving the lives of Logan and Jane when they were young. However, underneath Leah's placid exterior lurks a woman who is terrified of being left alone, a fear which surfaces when Jane reveals she loves the local doctor (Ron Randell) and Logan becomes engaged to the local vicar's daughter, Catherine (Diana Douglas, mother of Michael).

Leah gradually reveals a very controlling personality, subtly plotting to sabotage Jane and Logan's relationships. Meanwhile, young Christine is so overly devoted to her stepmother that Leah can manipulate her into doing anything by threatening to send her away to boarding school.

Peters is excellent, creating a very different villainess in that she's so beautiful and nice. Watching the layers gradually peel away to expose the ugliness underneath is fascinating. It seems quite brave of Peters to have chosen such a role for her return to films, a part in which she receives the audience's understanding but not sympathy.

Thaxter is always a sympathetic actress, but it must be admitted she doesn't have a great deal to do in the film other than look concerned. She serves more as an observer and a plot device of sorts than an actual independent character; she's someone to stir Leah's jealousy and for Christine to attack.

The film's main flaw may be that it exists in a Cornish never-never land where the accents, if there are any at all, are all over the map. And speaking of Cornwall, the lighthouse down the coastline is very clearly a painting! The set design otherwise is terrific.

I also would have appreciated a bit more insight into how Jane and Dr. Crowdy resolve their relationship, which occurs abruptly, and I would have liked to have greater understanding of Leah's feelings towards the children's mother, who had been her friend. There's a moment near the end when she smashes the first wife's photograph which left me more curious than anything else. However, these are fairly minor quibbles regarding an interesting, very absorbing film which strongly held my attention for all of its 84 minutes.

THE SIGN OF THE RAM was an early film in the career of director John Sturges, whose best-known films are THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) and THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963). I've now seen a number of Sturges' movies, and to date my favorites are among his earliest films; in addition to THE SIGN OF THE RAM, I especially like MYSTERY STREET (1950), with police detective Ricardo Montalban teaming with forensic scientist Bruce Bennett to solve a murder mystery.

The black and white cinematography was by the great Burnett Guffey. The costumes were by Jean Louis.

The screenplay was by Charles Bennett, based on the book THE SIGN OF THE RAM by Margaret Ferguson. Bennett's impressive prior credits included Hitchcock films such as THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934), THE 39 STEPS (1935), YOUNG AND INNOCENT (1937), and FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940).

THE SIGN OF THE RAM would make a good double bill with GUEST IN THE HOUSE (1945), another film about the negative impact of one person on an otherwise happy family.

Unfortunately, THE SIGN OF THE RAM is not available on VHS or DVD. It's a Columbia film so perhaps at some point we'll be fortunate to see it released in the TCM Vault series or in the Sony/Columbia line of DVD-Rs sold at the Warner Archive.


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