Introducing Laurence Harvey: House of Darkness (1948)

A few weeks ago I wrote about Anthony Mann’s last film (A Dandy in Aspic) featuring Laurence Harvey in one of his best roles. At the time I expressed how much I liked Harvey even though many critics are quick to dismiss him. His reputation has been badly tarnished over the years thanks to shoddy journalism that often focuses on his run-ins with other actors or his sex life. It’s a shame that the negative press surrounding Harvey often outweighs the good but he’s had some notable defenders. When Harvey befriended a costar such as Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra or John Wayne, those friendships often lasted a lifetime.

I’ve always thought Harvey was an interesting actor who was occasionally miscast in roles that he seemed ill-fitted for. He was born in Lithuania and raised in South Africa so when he arrived in Britain in 1946 to study acting he was the odd man out. Harvey also openly flaunted his bisexuality at times, which seemed to bother a lot of his postwar colleagues. He was eager to be taken seriously as a British actor but he wasn’t British and many of his costars never let him forget it.

Harvey was occasionally prone to overacting and was considered to be a bit of a ham but I appreciate the way he seemed to wrestle with every role. Nothing ever came easy to Harvey and you can sense his personal as well as professional struggles when you watch him perform. There’s an urgency and desperation in his performances that makes me root for him even when he’s playing a villain. He’s also very easy on the eyes and I appreciate his brooding good looks but I tend to be drawn to outsiders, malcontents, and misfits and there was always something alien about Laurence Harvey.

My interest in Harvey recently prompted me to seek out the actor’s first movie, which happens to be a gothic British horror film called House of Darkness (1948). Over the years I’ve come across brief snippets of information about the film but nothing very substantial. The movie is usually compared unfavorably to other post-WW2 British horror films such as Dead of Night (1945) and The Queen Of Spades (1948) but if you’re a Laurence Harvey fan or just interested in early examples of British horror cinema, you might find the movie as rewarding as I did.

The film’s plot is rather simplistic and like many horror films made in the 1940s it uses humor to soften its scares. It’s also weighed down by a somewhat disjointed framing device involving a music composer who tells a ghostly tale about stumbling on an old English manor house one night and hearing strange music coming from inside. As the composer tells his suspenseful tale the story comes to life and the film’s focus changes so that we’re now watching the events of the story unfold instead of just hearing about them.

Laurence Harvey plays a recently married pianist named Francis who lives with his older ailing brother John (Alexander Archdale). John lords over the family fortune and resents the way Francis frivolously spends their inheritance. John also plays the violin and habitually criticizes the way Francis plays the piano. This professional and personal rivalry causes tension between the two brothers and as time passes it becomes clear that Francis is slowly becoming unhinged by his greed and personal resentment towards his family. In a fit of rage, he kills his brother and although he’s never charged with John’s murder Francis’ conscious begins to get the best of him. He is haunted by the ghost of his dead brother who makes his presence known in a wonderfully creepy scene towards the end of the movie.

House of Darkness is by no means a great film. Its brief 77-minute running time seems longer than needed. It tells the type of story that’s often better suited for an anthology film such as the previously mentioned Dead of Night. As a standalone film House of Darkness seems predictable and unimaginative. It was made by the British director Oswald Mitchell who has trouble evoking genuine dread. Except for John’s murder and the last few minutes of the movie, House of Darkness is utterly devoid of suspense. It’s almost saved by John Gilling’s script, which managed to keep me interested in the film even when the direction became increasingly mundane. John Gilling went on to become a writer and director of numerous British crime movies and some of his best work was done with Hammer Films including The Gorgon (1964), The Reptile (1966), The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and The Mummy’s Shroud (1967). Without Gilling’s name in the credits House of Darkness would be a hard film to recommend but the movie should also interest some Laurence Harvey fans.

As I mentioned previously, this was Harvey’s first film and that’s painfully obvious from the moment he opens his mouth. Harvey was only 20 years old at the time that he appeared in House of Darkness and fresh out of RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). During the course of making the movie, Harvey was forced to undergo a name change when the producers told him that his last name (Skikne) was unsuitable for an aspiring British actor. He had already changed his first name when he entered college but he agreed to change his last name in order to star in House of Darkness. According to various sources he decided to choose the name Harvey after walking past the historic Harvey Nichols store in London one evening. The young actor was also still undergoing voice coaching and you can occasionally hear an unusual mishmash of accents during his dialogue-heavy scenes.

Harvey’s performance in House of Darkness is fascinating to watch. It seems obvious to me that he was inspired by early horror film villains and at times he seems to be unabashedly channeling Bela Lugosi or Dwight Frye. In his portrayal of the murderous madman Francis, Harvey arches his eyebrows magnificently, grimaces whenever possible and bulges his eyes to express shock and disbelief. The rest of the cast seems to be making a Victorian melodrama and their low-key performances continually clash with Harvey’s over-the-top theatrics. Without much effort, Harvey manages to steal every scene he’s in but his on-camera antics seem ridiculously outdated in 1948. If House of Darkness had been made 10 or 20 years earlier Harvey’s performance would have been pitch-perfect. Watching it today makes Harvey seem like a man lost in time and maybe that’s what he always was?

Harvey had grown up loving the movies and while he was living in South Africa he would often skip school and spend his lunch money on movie tickets. Harvey dreamed of becoming as famous as the suave and sophisticated cinema stars he loved such as Fred Astaire, Ronald Colman, George Sanders, Rex Harrison, and Errol Flynn. He liked to mimic the way those actors talked and dressed even if it made him appear somewhat old fashioned. But Harvey didn’t just want to be an actor. He also wanted to produce and direct his own films. Throughout his career, he tried to do all of that and he succeeded even though critics didn’t always appreciate his efforts. Harvey obviously had some interest in horror films and thrillers because during his lifetime he appeared in many suspenseful movies like the classic The Manchurian Candidate(1962) as well as Night Watch (1973) and a remake of Dial M for Murder (1967). He also starred in numerous spy films and episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well as Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. The last film that Harvey made was an interesting horror film about a war veteran with a taste for human flesh called Welcome to Arrow Beach (1974), which he also directed.

As a horror film fan I find it fascinating that Harvey decided to make his acting debut as well as his screen exit in horror films. It could just be a coincidence but Harvey was a very calculated actor and throughout his career he tried to control every aspect of his very public persona. He invented stories about his past for the press, lied to family and friends, and manufactured his carefully constructed image as a modern-day dandy.

While watching House of Darkness I couldn’t help but wonder if Harvey ever had any ambitions to become a horror icon in the same fashion as Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff. Harvey could have found some inspiration and personal kinship with the Hungarian born Lugosi. Both actors started out on stage and Lugosi’s struggle to find his place in Hollywood might have reminded Harvey of his own personal struggles with identity as a British expat. Of course this could just be imaginary on my part but there’s something vaguely nostalgic about Harvey’s performance in House of Darkness that conjures up memories of watching Bela Lugosi in films like Dracula (1931), White Zombie (1932), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Black Cat (1934).

Even though House of Darkness suffers from its low-budget, lackluster sets, dull direction and lumbering pace, I still found Harvey’s performance in the movie memorable and somewhat touching. In retrospect, I think je would have made an impressive Count Dracula. It’s a shame that he was never given the opportunity.

House of Darkness is an interesting first step in Harvey’s acting career and the film’s producers as well as Harvey’s family were sure that the role would make him a movie star. Unfortunately that didn’t happen right away. Much to Harvey’s dismay, critics were not very impressed with the film and it was easily forgotten by the public. To add insult to injury his name was even misspelled in the credits after the producers forced him to change it. But that didn’t hinder Harvey’s determination to become a star.

For the next 10 years Laurence Harvey strove to get better stage and screen roles with help from his longtime friend, occasional lover and manager James Woolf. His acting greatly improved and in the 1960s he achieved his dream of becoming one of Britain’s most famous leading men. That’s quite an accomplishment for a Lithuanian born actor who was raised in South Africa. No matter what you may think of Harvey’s acting style, it’s hard not to be impressed with his determination and career accomplishments. Some of these accomplishments may have taken place on casting couches but I admire the enthusiasm he brought to every role. Harvey obviously loved being in front of a camera and the camera loved him.

  • by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for Turner Classic Movies and published in May of 2010