Aka A Night of Terror.
I was introduced to Agatha Christie through her short stories. My mother had inherited several fat tomes from her grandfather, and among these were a couple of anthologies of detective fiction. In those books, I first came across Poirot, Miss Marple, Harley Quinn, Tommy and Tuppence… and, what still remains one of my favourite crime stories, Agatha Christie’s Philomel Cottage.
This film is based on Philomel Cottage. A story of a woman who suddenly finds what seems to be all the happiness in the world: a sudden windfall, and true love.
Or is it, really?
The story begins by introducing us to Caroline ‘Carol’ Howard (Ann Harding), who lives in a tiny apartment with her friend Kate (Binnie Hale) and Carol’s hypochondriac Aunt Lou (Jean Cadell). The three women have a hard time, not exactly poverty-stricken, but not comfortably off either. Aunt Lou keeps cribbing about her poor health all the time, and the two younger women keep either humouring her or laughing it off (Aunt Lou keeps forgetting whether she’d been complaining of a headache or a stomachache, or which side of her was supposed to be hurting).
Carol, on her way to the office where she works, cannot stop herself from gazing wistfully at a pretty hat in a shop window. How she would love to have that, love to travel, love to do the many things she absolutely cannot afford.
But on this day, things are going to change. Because, when Carol gets to work, it’s to find that there is a note waiting for her. She’s won a lottery.
Carol cannot believe her good luck, but a few careful comparisons of the winning number and the ticket she’s got, and Carol knows it. She’s rich. She only has to go to Paris to claim the money (it’s a French lottery), but in the meantime, she withdraws all her savings and buys that hat.
And goes rushing home to break the good news to Kate. Now they can do everything they’ve never been able to afford before. Aunt Lou can go to Brighton for her health, and Kate will come to Paris with Carol, after which the two women will have a holiday in France.
Carol also arranges to have their rooms put on rent. In response to the real estate agent’s posting of the ‘to rent’ status of their home, a man comes calling. Gerald Lovell (Basil Rathbone) is well-heeled, with oil concerns in South America. One might imagine him not caring for a small, modest flat like Carol’s but Gerald explains: it’s a matter of sentiment. This view, of London, of comfortable, non-exotic, everyday life in London: this is what he missed all those years he was away at war and then further afield. The war seems to have had a bad effect on Gerald’s health: as we discover later, he has a weak heart.
Carol likes Gerald: he’s so open, so charming. He mentions to her that he is an amateur photographer and develops his own photographs. And when she arranges to have him take possession of the flat, he notes down the details in a little notebook he carries around with him. Everything, he tells Carol, goes into this notebook.
Once Gerald has gone, another man arrives. And this one is an old friend, a much-loved man. Ronnie Bruce (Bruce Seton) is Carol’s fiancé and has been working in Sudan the past several years, trying to earn enough money so that they can get married and live comfortably. Now, just as this windfall has come Carol’s way, Ronnie too has found a job in Britain and has returned.
Carol is delighted, and tells Ronnie of her sudden good fortune, and how she will rent out this flat to Gerald Lovell and go away on holiday. Now Ronnie need not worry about their finances; she has so much money, she will be able to provide for them. Ronnie must come with her to the Continent, they’ll have a wonderful time.
But Ronnie balks at the idea. He will not sponge on Carol.
An argument erupts, and ends with Carol and Ronnie breaking off their engagement. Just as Ronnie is leaving, Gerald Lovell arrives, and Carol, somewhat embarrassed, more or less admits that her engagement is off. Meanwhile, downstairs, Ronnie runs into Kate, whom he also is friends with, and though Kate tries to persuade him to make up with Carol, Ronnie is too annoyed to do so. And too suspicious of Gerald.
… and, when Carol and Kate get on the boat the next day, whom should they see on the boat but Gerald Lovell? He makes it obvious that he’s here to woo Carol, and he sets about doing so with consummate ease.
By the time they arrive in Paris, Carol and Gerald are an item. She paints the town red with him, going to all the sights, enjoying herself to the hilt. It’s clear to Kate (who is still in Paris, and accompanying Carol and Gerald on all their outings) that Carol has completely and utterly forgotten about Ronnie. She’s moved on.
This is why, one morning, Carol is taken aback to find Ronnie turning up at her Paris apartment. Ronnie tells her that Kate (who has since returned to England) has told him about Carol having fallen in love with Gerald, and Ronnie—who has been suspicious and wary of Gerald from the beginning—has been investigating Gerald’s past. It seems very shady indeed: there are no oil holdings in South America, and no clear indications of where all of Gerald’s wealth comes from. Ronnie, in fact, has been so suspicious, he’s called in Scotland Yard to investigate.
Carol is furious. Furious and indignant. More so, because just this morning, she and Gerald have been married. She tells Ronnie that, just as Gerald emerges from another room. The two of them are so in love, and Carol is so obviously refusing to hear anything against her husband, that Ronnie leaves.
Gerald gives Carol some good news: he has found the perfect home for them in England. It’s out in the countryside, a lovely little cottage miles away from traffic and noise and congestion. An oasis of calm and peace, where they can be really happy by themselves. Carol is delighted, and when Gerald reluctantly admits that he’s a bit short of money to pay for the cottage—some remittances he’d expected from South America have been delayed—she chides him for thinking her money is in any way separate from his.
On Carol’s insistence, therefore, Gerald draws up the papers for her to transfer some of her funds to his account. Carol signs blithely, not even bothering to read the papers: Gerald has read them, hasn’t he? That’s enough for her.
Of course you know where this is going. A man who falls in love with a woman just after she’s acquired a fortune. Who seems to have no very clear source of a vast income. And whom the woman loves blindly enough for her to not read the fine print. There’s something fishy here.
What I liked about this film, what I didn’t like, and some comparisons:
The acting of Basil Rathbone and Ann Harding, especially in the last half hour: so convincing. They are one of the major elements to admire about this film.
And, the way part of the story is adapted. Philomel Cottage (in which the main characters are called Gerald and Alix Martin) had a lot of things emerging through the narrative rather than in dialogue: Gerald’s hobby of photography and the way he’s converted the cellar into a dark room, for instance; and Gerald’s habit of writing everything down in his notebook. Also, the story begins just a little before the action of the climax, so we only get a brief overview of how Alix happened to marry Gerald.
All of this is built well into the film, rounding out Alix/Carol and Gerald’s back story perfectly, covering all those elements that Christie used in her story but adapting it for a cinematic adaptation without tampering with the core of the story.
In the same vein, I liked that the telephone section (which plays a crucial part in the story) was removed, since (I think) it would have lacked the punch onscreen that it had in the written form.
And, one more element that I liked very much: the ‘Faster! Faster!’ piano scene, where a crazed Gerald encourages Carol to play a piano piece as fast as she can, and the adrenalin mounts. It’s an interesting, suspenseful scene by itself, but when juxtaposed with a scene later in the film—no piano, but that same mounting tension and speed, the same allegro, so to say—it becomes even more impactful.
What I didn’t like was Carol’s desperate (and hard to believe) story which she spins for Gerald’s benefit (or not!) right at the end. This is a complete departure from Christie’s modus operandi, and it lacks the slow dawning of what is happening, the horror of realization. In Philomel Cottage, the way Alix Martin talks of what she did, the gradual building up of terror: that is what is so suspenseful. In Love from a Stranger, you don’t quite get the same sense of riveting suspense.
But, yes, all in all, a good film. If you like Christie, and are keen on Christie adaptations, this is worth a watch. It’s available for viewing on YouTube, here. If you would like to read Philomel Cottage,a copy is available online for reading here.