On Monday, October 12th TCM is airing a batch of suspenseful films focusing on “Treacherous Spouses.” Most critics wouldn’t classify any of these films as horror but some of them contain genuinely horrific moments. The impressive line-up includes Experiment Perilous (1944), Suspicion (1941), Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M for Murder (1954), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) Elevator to the Gallows (1958) and the day’s programming commences at 6am EST/3am PST with Cast a Dark Shadow(1955).
You can’t go wrong with any of these fine thrillers but today I’d like to single out Cast a Dark Shadow, a gripping and remarkably grim British production starring Dirk Bogarde as a suave young Romeo who seduces wealthy older women for financial gain and then murders them in cold blood. Clocking in at a brisk 82 minutes and featuring some stellar talent behind and in front of the camera, Cast a Dark Shadow presents an interesting early example of a seductive and unscrupulous serial killer who will stop at nothing to satisfy his basest urges.
I first saw Cast a Dark Shadow on late night TV when I was an impressionable pre-teen. It was my introduction to Dirk Bogarde and the film terrified me but it also made me a lifelong fan of the actor. The picture opens with a striking scene shot inside a funhouse ride at a carnival. Bogarde’s character is sharing his seat with his wife and future murder victim (Mona Washbourne) when the camera focuses on his face hidden by shadows while his pupils appear to light-up. It’s a startling effect that makes Bogarde look like a hungry demon with hellfire in his eyes. In this clever title sequence, director Lewis Gilbert and cinematographer Jack Asher signal to film audiences that their male protagonist is a monster before he ever opens his mouth.
The monster in question is the boyishly handsome, extremely well-dressed, effortlessly charming and exceptionally witty, Edward ‘Teddy’ Bare played by Bogarde in one of his earliest “bad boy” roles. It’s not hard to figure out why lonely women are drawn to him although Bare’s sexuality remains rather ambiguous throughout the film due to the casting of Bogarde and his character’s choice of reading materials (magazines featuring scantily clad muscle men). After we’re introduced to his character via the funhouse sequence, we learn about his complicated relationship with his elderly wife who he rids himself of rather quickly. Her murder is a cruel and utterly heartless bit of nastiness that he performs with chilling bravado. With sharply arched eyebrows, a wicked side-eye and bone-chilling laugh, Bogarde makes a formidable villain. He may be just another Bluebeard-style lady-killer in this somewhat predictably plotted suspenser but much like Robert Montgomery in Night Must Fall (1937) and Joseph Cotton in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Bogarde’s tightly wound performance is strikingly modern and makes a lasting impression that has influenced countless imitators.
He is matched by his female costars, the lovely Margaret Lockwood and Kay Walsh, two talented British actresses who are both exceptional here. Lockwood, who typically starred in lush historic melodramas plays a tough-as-nails working class dame who falls for Bare but demands a measure of his respect and Walsh is the suspicious sister of his murdered wife who maneuvers her way into their lives. A messy love-triangle threatens to emerge from the chaos but the egotistical Bare has murder on his mind and believes he can outsmart them both in an effort to fulfill his money-fueled fantasies.
The film was directed by Lewis Gilbert who made a number of British Noirs and war films before helming Cast a Dark Shadow. It did not garner much attention outside of Britain but Gilbert would eventually win worldwide acclaim for his work on Alfie (1966), which made Michael Caine an international star. At first glance, Alfie and Cast a Shadow may not appear to have much in common but both films center around self-satisfied and amoral young men who seduce gullible woman for personal gain. Alfie and ‘Teddy’ are similarly witty, well-groomed and wise to the more unsavory ways of the world but their outward appeal masks a noxious interior. Both could be certifiable sociopaths and although the fun-loving Alfie never murders anyone, he does leave a trail of bruised and broken hearts in his wake.
Besides its entertainment value, this is also a great looking little thriller and that has a lot to do with cinematographer Jack Asher. Based on a stage play by Janet Green (she would go on to write the script for Victim in 1961; a groundbreaking film about a gay man played by Dirk Bogarde who is the victim of blackmail) with a minimal cast and limited locations, the film could have easily been a much more formal and drearily composed affair but Asher and director Lewis Gilbert breath lots of life into the production. Before working on Cast a Dark Shadow, Asher shot some interesting British Noirs and afterward he went on to work with Hammer studios on many exceptional horror films that employed his pioneering use of color including The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), The Hound of the Baskervilles(1959), The Mummy (1959) and The Brides of Dracula (1960). Some of these Hammer horrors will be airing on TCM this month so if you want to see more of Asher’s work you’ll have ample opportunity.
For some unknown reason Cast a Dark Shadow is only available on VHS and PAL DVD but bootleg copies are floating around. TCM will undoubtedly air the crisp print they’ve run in previous years so if you want to see this highly recommended thriller I suggest tuning in on October 12th. And if you can’t manage the early morning hours consider setting your DVRs (or whatever recording devices you have on hand) so you can watch at your convenience.