Love from a Stranger (1937)

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.

26 thoughts on “Love from a Stranger (1937)

  1. Haven’t heard of this film or the Christie story on which it was based, Madhu. (Which is strange, come to think of it, since I devoured Christie by the dozen when I was growing up.) So thank you for both the links. Your review has certainly piqued my interest!

    • “Christopher Lee fog

      Ooo! Which ones have you been watching? I have to admit I have very little recollection of having watched any of his earlier films; unfortunately, the only films of his of which I have a vivid recall are the LOTR trilogy.

      • I’ve been watching just everything. Some Hammer movies I hadn’t seen, a lot of even more obscure stuff. Mostly horror movies, though, that is inevitable. Are you looking for anything?

          • I’ll give you a top five and a few other suggestions that I think might work for you.

            1. Dracula (1958)- one of the 3 great Dracula performances (next to Nosferatu and Lugosi)
            2. The Wicker Man
            3. Gormenghast
            4. The Whip and The Body (I did a review)
            5. Scars of Dracula- my favourite of the sequels, very schlocky and also homoerotic

            Then he was in The Man With The Golden Gun but I cannot stand James Bond, and good versions of The Mummy and Frankenstein. Also you might like Jinnah, which is supposed to be great but I’m still gathering courage to watch it.

  2. Many thanks, Madhu! Like Anu, I thought I had read everything by Christie, but I hadn’t known about “Philomel Cottage” till I read this post. Both the story and the movie sound delicious and since you’ve kindly provided links to both I intend to enjoy both!

  3. I thought that I had read all the Agatha Christie books, just like Anu and Shalini, but it appears that I have missed Philomel Cottage. My father used to bring home books from a library at work, and that was how I read all the Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner and all the other detective fiction in the 8th and 9th grades. Any books that were not available in the library would be bought at the bookstands on the Railway platform so I am surprised that I have not heard of this one until now. I am going to read the book first and then watch the movie, since I am intrigued by your review. Thanks for finding this one and telling us about it.

    • This is not a full-fledged novel, Lalitha, just a short story. Also, it’s not a detective story, so it doesn’t fall into the Marple-Poirot-Tommy and Tuppence-Parker Pyne-Harley Quinn categories, so it’s not even as if it would appear in collections of short stories for those detectives. So it’s not surprising, really, to have missed it. Whenever you read (and/or watch the film), let me know what you think of it. I’m eager to know.

  4. As Always a wonderful review, I was aware of this film but have not yet seen it, but I have a question, since you are familiar with the original Agatha Christie story…Was the ‘playing the piano faster scene’ in that? The reason I ask is, there is a notorious 1936 American film called “Reefer Madness” and in one of it’s most infamous scenes, one of the characters plays the piano ‘under the influence’ while her boyfriend urges her to play “Faster, Faster!!”. (It can be found on youtube as Reefer Madness – The famous piano-scene) .Maybe it was just coincidence!

    • Thank you for the appreciation, I’m glad you enjoyed this review.

      There is no piano playing scene in Christie’s story, so it’s very likely that the scene form Reefer Madness (I haven’t seen that film) was the inspiration for the scene in this film. :-)

  5. I really enjoyed the short story. Thank you for posting the link. Like many folks here, even though I have read many, many Christie novels, I hadn’t come across this one before.

  6. What? They made a movie on Philomel Cottage? It goes on my must watch list right now! In some short stories, Christie built up the suspense slowly, with some everyday occurrences, dropped hints, till you found yourself on the edge of the seat and before you knew it, you had lost nails on at least three fingers! I remember that the collection of short stories in this anthology were some of her better ones, with sharp twists which leave you gobsmacked. I wonder how they adapted the ending for the screen. I am itching to find that out now! Because in Philomel Cottage story the final culmination is into ‘…and then he died’, if I remember correctly. Oh, I do love suspense stories/ movies of this kind. Very Daphne du Maurier-isq.

    • It’s been so long since I read Philomel Cottage, I’d forgotten that last sentence; reading it in your comment brought it back vividly! And yes, what a superb story this is – she was really at the top of her game here. I’m so glad to come across someone who’s read it. :-) When and if you get the chance to watch the film, let me know what you think of it.

      • I watched it! I just had to. I agree with you. The last 30 minutes were truly brilliant. I didn’t enjoy the beginning too much. And Ronnie was such a wet blanket- when he visits Carol in Paris, he was speaking the lines in English but in my head I was paraphrasing them in Hindi, ‘Tum badal gayi ho, Carol. Yeh shan, yeh shaukat, yeh kuch din ki hi chandani hai; laut jao mere saath, Carol, aao ghar chalein, jisse hum pyaar se sajayenge.’ I wanted to tell him, nahi nahi, isko uthakar bhaag jao and spend all the money!
        [Yes, I watch too many movies, yes there a parallel translation channel going in my head all the time. And yes, I came up with a cinematic plan on remaking the movie in Hindi. Directed by Raj Khosla, the movie would have starred Ashok Kumar as the well oiled and suave Gerald, Dharmendra or Balraj Sahni as the righteous Ronnie (but with more character and punch), Nargis as Carol with a lot of spunk and Geeta Bali as Kate]
        And though at first I did not approve of it, I liked how Gerald became a totally different person when they moved to the cottage- it seemed sudden but then it felt right, because you can see him visibly crack under this own perceived brilliane. The piano scene, the ‘read louder’ scene were all done so well. You could feel the tension mounting. I completely agree, the telephone scene would not have passed muster. This was better. Though, for a moment I was curious to know if Carol really *did” poison him after all.

        • Heh. I loved that comment, especially the Hindi translation of Ronnie’s dialogues. Oh, yes! So true. :-)

          I totally agree too about the possible casting for a Hindi remake. That would have been delicious. That casting is perfect – I can imagine all those people in their respective roles. Now I do wish someone had made this film…

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