Cast a Dark Shadow was on my TCM Top Twelve for January, and it’s a choice that turned out to be the right one. This dark noirish mystery is filled with Freudian symbolism enmeshed within a typical murder mystery. Add a dose of wifely murder, and Dirk Bogarde continuing to skirt the line of the sexually ambiguous, and this is a well-made film worth checking out.
Edward Bare (Bogarde) discovers his significantly older wife Monica (Mona Washbourne) has left him out of her will, so he decides to bump her off. In an ironic twist of fate, Monica did leave her fortune to Edward, but was disposed of before making it official. With no money to his name, Edward decides to take up with another older woman named Freda Jeffries (Margaret Lockwood) who isn’t as dumb as she looks.
There’s always a distinctive British sensibility to movies made in Europe at this time. In watching this, I kept seeing shots and moments that reminded me of Bogarde’s other role in the fantastic Victim. The movie holds no pretense about what is going to happen, as it starts with Edward and Monica riding a carnival ride; filled with twists and turns, and unseen horrors around every corner. The opening also sets up the story of this revolving around marriage, itself a roller-coaster. Audiences won’t get that from the beginning, and when the two characters come off the ride, you’d be safe in assuming this is a young man and his mother. I’d realized this was about a man bumping off his wife, but I did a double-take upon discovering that Monica and Edward were husband and wife.
Oedipal themes run rampant in Cast a Dark Shadow, and the audience sees how emasculating the women Edward meets are; yet, he wants these women to show maternal love for him. For instance, Monica calls Edward “Teddy,” which is a childhood name, as well as being in reference to “teddy bears” used on children. Monica sees Edward/Teddy as a little boy she wants to care for and teach things to. Monica has a nickname as well, Mony, which readers can almost hear as “Mummy,” to use the British vernacular. Later on, Freda calls Edward “Eddie” much like a child, as well. Intriguingly, the sexual tension that’s created is not through a relationship between two people who love each other, but through a parent/child relationship. (Even though no one is actually a child.)
Bogarde was haunting as the tormented man with a dark secret in Victim; here, he’s the complete opposite. Edward is sly, akin to a devilish little boy whose stuck his hand in the cookie jar. He snows Monica with his supposed doting kindness, but hides nothing. Bogarde is that rare actor that can convey emotion to just the audience, while conveying another emotion to the person he’s playing opposite. In a weird way, possibly that quest for a mother to love him, Edward did love Monica. When Freda comes over to his house for the first time, she discovers Monica’s room is being kept as a shrine by Edward. Why keep it if there’s not some love there?
Bogarde is paired perfectly with Margaret Lockwood as the fiery Freda. I haven’t seen Lockwood’s past work, but she’s utterly divine! She’s sassy and stubborn; case in point, she tells Edward she hates the seaside (where they’ve met), yet goes there for a vacation! She doesn’t know what she wants, only what she doesn’t want. She’s not interested in being Edward’s mother, but being his companion and equal. Shockingly, she expects Edward to work for what he wants, which he isn’t interested in. Freda does seem to be the least developed character of the movie, especially when the plot comes rushing to its crescendo. I understood Freda wants an equal partner, but she makes a blatant point of saying she doesn’t want Edward “for companionship.” So, what does she want with him? Sex? We’re never given an answer. In a later moment, Monica’s sister shows up with the intent of proving Edward’s a murderer; Freda says she doesn’t believe the sister, but knows that Edward isn’t interested in her and wants her gone. I was sad to see a character written so muddily by the end.
In terms of film making, the movie is an arrangement of genres with each one popping up to make a beautiful synthesis. The noir influences are obvious, but running concurrently is a macabre screwball plot. In fact, the entire plot kickstarts over a misunderstanding when Edward believes he’s been disinherited by Monica; only to later learn he’s been bequeathed a fortune. Other strong moments of technique include the soundtrack only being ambient noise. (Such as a nightclub singer reveals plot points in the song.)
Cast a Dark Shadow is a worthy murder mystery that plays out like a stage play, or typical British drawing-room story. Bogarde continues to distinguish himself as a sophisticated example of British excellence around this time, and Margaret Lockwood has pinged on my radar. I recommend seeking it out next time it’s on TCM. (Unfortunately, there’s no DVD out for this.)
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.