Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Guest in the House (1944) for Noir November

The Film Detective, a classic film streaming site that recently launched a 24/7 programmed channel on Sling TV, is about to kick off Noir November. I was invited to review one of several films being added to the Film Detective app in November. I picked Guest in the House (1944) starring young Anne Baxter as...well, read on...


Anne Baxter as Evelyn (left), listening in
The opening scenes of Guest in the House, a 1944 United Artists release, paint a cheery portrait of upscale on-the-coast mid-‘40s Americana. Happy music accompanies a house and yard full of happy people, most of them members of the congenial Proctor family. Soon and suddenly the music slows, deepens and intrudes on this jolly scenario. The darkening mood heralds the arrival of Evelyn, fiancée of younger brother Dan Proctor. Evelyn is portrayed by Anne Baxter whose performance as the visitor, the guest in the house, is a preview of her future Oscar-nominated whirl as Machiavellian Eve Harrington in All About Eve (1950).

Very much like Eve, Evelyn is coated in a sugary-sweet and obsequious veneer. And like Eve she insinuates her way into a milieu to which she hungrily aspires. But Eve was a garden variety sociopath, where Evelyn’s issues may go deeper than that. Initially, all in the Proctor household are sympathetic to her fits of anxiety and her phobias. There are subdued but understanding murmurs about her stay in “a hospital.”

Evelyn watches as a rival departs
It turns out that not only is Evelyn anxious and phobic, but she’s also a committed trouble-maker, and in short order manages to stir up discord in the House of Proctor, as she calls it. As suspicion and dissension spread, Evelyn eavesdrops and smiles to herself - and is emboldened to continue stirring things up. Evelyn also keeps a diary in which she regularly makes entries, entries that reveal her true feelings (ugly!) about just about everyone in the household…except Douglas (Ralph Bellamy), the older married-with-family brother of her betrothed. This journal could spell a schemer’s downfall, but Evelyn is a clever one.

Anne Baxter was only 21 when she made Guest in the House. Though she surrenders to over-emoting from time to time (she was only a kid!), she is just as often powerful and compelling as Evelyn. For the classic film buff it’s an eye-opener to watch the young actress in an early starring role delivering an early rendering, the prototype, of her later portrayal of Eve, the role for which she'll forever be remembered.

Ralph Bellamy and Ruth Warrick
Ralph Bellamy, in a rare lead role, has the opportunity to show more range and depth than usual as the object of the mad girl’s infatuation. Ruth Warrick (Citizen Kane) plays Bellamy’s wife who, when not reacting as a target of Evelyn’s maneuverings, seems to enjoy a rather frisky love life with her husband. Early on, alone with her in a dark room, Bellamy convinces Warrick to slip off her slippers and dance barefoot with him. Dancing barefoot, he says, “is like swimming in moonlight.” After more time in the dark with her he adds, “honey, we gotta  go dancing more often.”

Cinematographer Lee Garmes earned his first two Oscar nominations working under director Josef von Sternberg on a pair of early Marlene Dietrich classics, Morocco (1930) and Shanghai Express (1932), winning the Best Cinematography award for the latter. He also earned nominations for Since You Went Away (1944) and The Big Fisherman (1959). And he photographed Scarface (1932), Nightmare Alley (1947) and Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947), among scores of other films, including extensive uncredited work on Gone with the Wind. Garmes’s contribution to Guest in the House is striking, notably his use of disconcerting angles and unusual shots to underscore the conflict and confusion going on in the Proctor home and in Evelyn’s psyche.

Lewis Milestone started as director on the film but had to be replaced due to illness. John Brahm took over, squeezing Guest in the House in between two other, better-remembered projects of his, both starring Laird Cregar: The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945), a film that also benefited from Bernard Herrmann’s masterful score. Brahm would go on to direct countless episodes of classic era series TV, from Playhouse 90 to Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Johnny Staccato to The Twilight Zone to The Man from UNCLE.

Well cast supporting players include Aline MacMahon, Margaret Hamilton, Percy Kilbride, Jerome Cowan and Marie McDonald.

The camera work of Lee Garmes
Guest in the House is straight-up B fare, mostly because of a loosely woven plot that demands too much suspension of disbelief. The film might’ve easily deserved a B+ just for showcasing youthful Anne Baxter as a nascent Eve Harrington, for featuring Ralph Bellamy in a leading role, for its solid supporting cast, fine art direction and Lee Garmes’s gorgeous photography. That possibility went completely out the window with the film’s over-the-top (but entertaining) finale.

Happy Noir November!


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  1. GUEST IN THE HOUSE certainly sounds intriguing...and I had never heard of it! The pic of Evelyn looking out the window is genuinely creepy. I like the cast, too, especially the under-appreciated Ruth Warrick.

    1. This one was new to me, too, Rick, and I'm glad I chose it. The plot is a stretch at times and a script doctor would've helped, but it's worth watching for reasons we both mention.