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“If I can’t stir up anything here I think I’ll go and annoy the cat.”
on 9 May 2016
Reversing the traditional situation of a film inspiring its musical score, 1948’s House of Darkness is ostensibly inspired by George Melachrino’s score, in particular his First Rhapsody. Although largely forgotten today, Melachrino was a hugely popular easy listening bandleader in the 40s and 50s in the Mantovani mold. His screen work was fairly undistinguished, numbering a few Old Mother Riley films among those he scored, although some of his recordings were often used as library music in B-movies. He actually gets top billing and appears onscreen here, first seen rehearsing his Rhapsody and talking to the director of the film he’s making (Henry Oscar rather than the actual director Oswald Mitchell) about the deserted and supposedly haunted ‘House of Strange Music’ that inspired it – which is all we see of him until the epilogue. Instead the film spends most of its running time showing the proper cast (Laurence Harvey, Lesley Osmond, Alexander Archdale, John Teed, Lesley Brook) playing unhappy families in a melodramatic tale of avarice, resentment, paranoia and madness.
The Merrymans are the typical Edwardian family: Noel’s not been sleeping well – the office doesn’t agree with him – John keeps on having his attacks and Francis keeps on racking up debts and writing cheques with other people’s names on them while the Irish housekeeper actually says “At all at all” and Francis’ wife is the sole ray of light in the kind of grand house that has doom written all over it. John Gilling’s script is very obviously cobbled together from other more successful examples of the genre – a dash of Gaslight, a dab of The Little Foxes and a hint of The House of Seven Gables – but Laurence Harvey is pretty much the whole show here, and not for the right reasons. In his debut (billed last despite being the lead, and as Lawrence Harvey) as the mad manipulative wastrel plotting to get the family fortune he thinks he's been denied, he camps it up something rotten as he works his way through a fascinating array of smirks and sneers and squints while talking out of the side of the mouth like a bitchy theatre critic who thinks he's Oscar Wilde on a good day and dialling it up to 11. Which, to be fair, is probably all you can do when faced with dramatic confrontations like:
“I doubt if you’ll play the violin again. You’ll miss it, won’t you? I don’t imagine they’ll have a violin where you’re going. You’re not much good at it anyway!”
“Francis, you’re insane!”
“Of course I am. Didn’t you know? All megalomaniacs are insane. It’s a WONDERFUL feeling to be puffed up with delusions of grandeur. It makes everybody else appear so damned insignificant!”
“No – not my violin!”
Kenneth Williams and Robert Newton would be proud of him.
Not content with helping one step-brother shuffle off this mortal coil, it’s not long before he’s playing on the other’s belief in spiritualism to convince him the place is haunted and Rosie the maid is hearing things going bump in the night (“I never fancied meeting Mr. John when he was alive and I fancy it a lot less now he’s been cooped up in a coffin for a fortnight, so I’m off!”). But once his neurotic ‘tinpot Cromwell’ gets what he wants, so the family solicitor (John Stuart) helpfully informs us while demonstrating what must be a sideline in cod psychology, his mind has no more output for its diabolical scheming and his disordered imagination turns against him, and just when you think there’s nowhere further over the top for him to go, Harvey goes that extra mile and really starts playing it to the hilt…
On one level you have to admire Harvey’s agent’s incredible skills of persuasion for getting him another job after this one, but it’s probably only Harvey’s performance that keeps the film afloat: he clearly knows it’s ridiculous and the only way to play it is to out-Vincent Price and ham it up for all he’s worth to get laughs. There’s not much else about the film that’s particularly memorable (well, Melachrino does have a VERY strange way of walking in the prologue) or accomplished, but there’s certainly a fascination with seeing how much further Harvey will go before meeting poetic justice.
Aside from one noticeable bit of print damage Network’s UK DVD offers a good transfer though on larger screens there a slight but noticeable tendency to develop ‘shark’s teeth’ on the actors on the right hand side of frame’s noses. The only extra is a rather pointless PDF of the screen credits cover sheet.