The Uninvited


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Adapted for the screen (from a then popular novel by Dorothy Macardle) and released by Paramount Studios in 1944, The Uninvited is a highly entertaining (if conventional) haunted house/mystery thriller, a perfect example of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Although contemporary audiences might be disappointed by the absence of visceral shocks or scares, they can still find pleasure in the note-perfect performances (especially Ray Milland as the lead and Gail Russell as his love interest), noirish black-and-white photography (by Charles Lang), and tense, moody suspense sequences (directed efficiently and unobtrusively by Lewis Allen).

In The Uninvited, a vacationing brother and sister, Roderick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) and Pamela (Ruth Hussy), discover an unoccupied seaside house while attempting to locate their wayward dog. Quickly enchanted by the spacious multi-room house (and its dramatic views of the ocean), and for Roderick, the opportunity to concentrate on composing music, the Fitzgeralds decide to purchase the house, despite rumors of unnatural sounds and disturbances (disturbances that later manifest themselves by the sounds of a sobbing woman, the scent of mimosas, and the uncommon cold and damp in Roderickís study). The owner, Commander Beech (Donald Crisp) is more than eager to sell the property to the Fitzgeralds for a small sum, but with one condition: his granddaughter, Stella Meredith (Gail Russell), is prohibited from visiting the Fitzgeralds at their new home. Roderick, of course, becomes enamored with Stella, and begins to uncover the dark secrets (are there any other kind?) that tie her to the house and the hauntings.

Almost effortlessly, Roderick discovers that Stellaís mother, Mary, died tragically in a fall from the nearby cliff (the question shifts from the who to the how and the why). Stellaís father, a painter, is also dead. There are also intimations of a not-so-secret romantic liaison between Stellaís father and one of his models, a Spanish gypsy woman, Carmel (who died shortly after Maryís accidental fall from the cliff). Of course, thereís more to the mystery than the official story suggests. The Uninvited also veers into ghostly possession, as the commanderís fears begin to come true (for supernatural or psychological reasons): Stellaís presence inside the house unleashes a flood of memories and emotions, and with them, contact with (and possible possession by) her motherís ghost.

From a socio-cultural perspective, The Uninvited provides the audience with a glimpse of male/female relationships from another, dissimilar era. Specifically, the men are clearly placed as non-believers, as rationalists (one of the secondary male characters is a doctor), whereas the two principal female characters, Ruth and Stella, make the imaginative leap into a belief in the supernatural quickly. Men here also make the key decisions affecting womenís lives. Pamela canít make the purchase of the house without her brotherís approval (they share the cost, but he makes the final decision). Pamela eventually finds a potential husband in the village doctor, Dr. Scott (Alan Napier), completing the marriage circle. In addition, the commander, without consulting Stella (or anyone else) makes the ill-conceived decision to obtain the help of his daughter's former friend, Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner), who happens to operate a clinic for disturbed women. Miss Holloway is an enigmatic, potentially destabilizing (and emotionally overwrought) figure, a spinster unusually devoted to the memory of Stellaís mother. The obvious connection here is to the Mrs. Danvers character from Daphne Du Maurierís Rebecca (filmed in 1940 by Alfred Hitchcock) and Mrs. Danvers' socially objectionable desires.

The filmmakersí cultural conservatism is also evident in the prejudicial language used to describe Carmel, the gypsy character (characters speak of her with dismissive contempt). That cultural conservatism, however, is partially undermined by a final, startling revelation. Another factor contributes to a more nuanced reading of The Uninvited: the representation of the male lead, Roderick (partly in keeping with his namesake from Edgar Allen Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher). Roderick falls short of the masculine ideal (he still lives with his sister and is prone to seasickness). He's also occasionally indecisive, and more importantly, exhibiting doubt and fear, especially in confronting the ghostly presence inside the house. As the protagonist, Roderick is expected to overcome his fears (it's no surprise when he does), but not before several near-failures of nerve.

© Mel Valentin, 17thJanuary, 2005

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