on 18 April 2006
If nothing else, the film gets the ending right. On stage, BLITHE SPIRIT ends with Charles Condomine's two wives having a catfight beyond the grave while he sweeps out in all of his masculine superiority. In the film version, the ladies will have none of that--mind you, he tries to make such an exit, but it's followed promptly by a fatal car crash that lands him right back in the muck--which is where he belongs, since the whole mess is his fault . . .
Secondly, the character of Condomine's second wife, Ruth, has been softened a bit, not only in Constance Cummings' brisk but likeable performance, but in Coward's script--the stage version made Ruth a hysterical scold and the butt of one too many nasty jokes--here she is a nice normal woman caught in an increasingly weird and annoying situation, and everything she does, both before and after death, makes a fair amount of sense.
Finally, there is Margaret Rutherford's performance as the medium Madame Arcati, whom Charles hires to conduct a seance in hopes of publicly debunking her, only to get lots of trouble as his just desserts. Far too many actresses think the role is an exucse of drape themselves in turbans and such and camp it up to an annoying degree. Coward wrote her, and Rutherford plays her, as a nice, relatively normal sort of person--a bit of an overgrown Girl Guide, perhaps, but hardly a self-concious eccentric. This makes her more eccentric moments, such as her rather scratchy releationship with her spirit guide, a little girl, all the funnier.
As Condomine, Rex Harrison makes a splendid fool of himself for almost two hours, and you need not feel any guilt about enjoying his various trials and humiliations, because you know the man brought them all on himself--the opening scenes of the film reveal a smart, charming fellow, but also one who is thoroughly full of himself and bruising for a comeuppance. He gets it and then some.
A comeuppance named Elvira, who probably favored tight silks and chiffon even before her demise, which no doubt left all around her both saddened and a little relieved. Kay Hammond gives the character just the right sort of ripe, mischievous edge that lets you understand how such a person could be both delightful and infuriating pretty much in the space of the same breath, and how even the reappearance of her insubstantial ghost could cause ripples of trouble in her husband's new marriage.
This was the third film that David Lean worked on with Noel Coward, and the first that didn't touch in some way on the war; a vast improvement, in my opinion. IN WHICH WE SERVE, if done honestly, was the story of an egomaniac willing to sacrafice ships and crews to make his name in the Royal Navy. THIS HAPPY BREED was flawed by his complete lack of connection with his working-class roots. BLITHE SPIRIT takes place in that charming fantasy-land of drawing-room comedy where the only worry was where the next drink and the next one-liner were coming from, and they always turned up. Lean and his cinematographer, Ronald Neame, did a wonderful job of taming that beast known as three-strip Technicolor, with the result that this is one of the subtlest color films of this period other than MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. And although the film barely moves outside of Condomine's, well, drawing room, there is no sense of cramp or of canned theater; like Alfred Hitchcock on DIAL "M" FOR MURDER, Lean finds all sorts of interesting things to do with his camera, even in a fairly-small room. THAT is the sign of a great director, not rebuilding most of Moscow on a backlot in Madrid . . .