ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Dragonwyck (1946) starring Gene Tierney Blu Ray (Indicator)
A majestic mansion hides some dark secrets
This adaptation of Anya Seton’s novel of the same name is set in the United States during the 19th century. Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney) is a young woman who lives on a Connecticut family farm run by her devoutly religious patriarch of a father named Ephraim (Walter Huston).
One day, her mother Abigail (Anne Revere) receives a letter from a wealthy New York landowner named Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price) who claims to be a distant cousin of hers. He has requested that she sends one of her daughters to live with them in the sumptuous mansion of Dragonwyck and look after their young daughter Katrine (Connie Marshall). Upon hearing this news, Miranda expresses her excitement at this opportunity to see the world outside of their rural existence and live a luxurious dream life.
While Ephraim has his misgivings about honouring Van Ryn’s request, he sleeps on it and ultimately agrees to let her stay with him, his wife and his daughter. Soon after Katrine’s arrival, however, things don’t turn out to be quite as idyllic as Van Ryn’s grandiloquent charm and Dragonwyck’s majestic facade initially suggest.
For one thing, an elderly maid named Magda (Spring Byington) decides to regale her with the story of an ancestor (whose portrait is seen in the music room) who is reputed to still haunt the house after casting a curse on the Van Ryn lineage. For another, she discovers that Nicholas has inherited an old title known as “Patroon” which entitles him to rent out his land to the local farmers. However, neither the tenants nor a handsome local doctor named Jeff Turner (Glenn Langan) are at all happy with the callously arrogant manner in which he treats them.
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Culture clash gothic-style
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s directorial debut is a multilayered, visually lavish gothic melodrama. While it has ambiguous psychological/supernatural elements in the style of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (which was superbly adapted to the big screen as The Innocents in 1961), these are kept as intriguing background details rather than turned into the central focus.
There are certainly come semi-comedic teasings of horror elements here; when Nicholas Van Ryn’s wife Joanna (Vivienne Osborne) inquires about what he gets up to in his ominous-sounding tower room, he responds in that inimitably smooth Vincent Price manner with the line:
“Possibly? Anything from pinning butterflies to hiding an insane twin brother. Actually, I read. I hope that my explanation satisfies you?”
In practice, however, it’s more of a culture clash drama cum romantic tragedy, albeit with a few elements of mystery thrown in for good measure. One aspect that is heavily emphasised here is a clash of inherited wealth and urbane sophistication (as represented by the Van Ryn family) versus that of rural poverty and rigid adherence to religious superstition (as represented by the Wells family - especially unyieldingly dogmatic patriarch Ephraim). Miranda Wells aspires to the former but she can never quite leave the latter behind.
Price leads a great cast
While the characters do admittedly seem rather stereotyped nowadays, most of them are brought very effectively to life by the cast. The exception is Glenn Langan, who is adequate but somewhat bland as a local doctor who becomes smitten with Miranda and ultimately turns into the film’s de facto hero. The highlight here is, of course, Vincent Price, who is at his tragic best as a man who is both a villain and a sad victim of a wealth that, for all of the muscles of power which it allows him to flex, also functions quite effectively as a gilded cage. His performance is an undoubted precursor to his iconic horror roles in Roger Corman’s 1960s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. At the same time, however, his shifts between boo-hiss villainy, pathos and pure silken-voiced charm are even more dramatically pronounced than in those later films. Gene Tierney holds her own pretty well against him as a woman who dearly wants to love him but, at the same time, is forced to bring her own strong-headedness into the mix. Watch out, too, for Jessica Tandy as a crippled Irish maid.
Dragonwyck is one visually beautiful and stylish affair, in part due to the sumptuous sets representing the titular mansion and in part due to Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s accomplished direction. A lengthy, elegant one-take dance sequence is a romantic piece of cinematic magic, while Miranda’s expressionistic walk up to the sinister tower room is a chilling, superbly-composed mini-gem.
While ultimately fairly predictable in terms of storyline, Dragonwyck offers plenty of pleasures along the way, especially for fans of Vincent Price and classic Hollywood cinema in general.
Runtime: 101 mins
Dir: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Script: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on a novel by Anya Seton
Starring: Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Vincent Price, Glenn Langan, Anne Revere, Spring Byington, Connie Marshall, Vivienne Osborne, Jessica Tandy
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
There are two versions of the film on this disc: one of which is a 4K remaster from 2017 and the other a legacy HD transfer. I watched the 4K print - which frankly looks and sounds stunning. The levels of detail, sharpness and contrast in the images are near-flawless throughout and the sound remains clear and smooth. Absolutely nothing to complain about.
Audio Commentary with Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr
Screenwriter Haberman and producer Nasr provide this informative commentary. They reel through a great deal of trivia about the cast, various production details, and the film’s parallels to other contemporary gothic tales such as Rebecca (1940), The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and Gaslight (1944).
The most interesting parts of the commentary, however, come when they refer to changes made to the source material, different drafts of the script and a few scenes which were cut, either at the behest of producer Darryl F. Zanuck or in order to adhere to the then incredibly strict Hollywood Motion Picture Production Code. One particularly notable excision (imposed by Zanuck) was made during a scene when Vincent Price’s Nicholas Van Ryn meets with a French count (played John Chollot). The ensuing dialogue between the two invoked parallels with Nazi Germany which Zanuck felt made Van Ryn seem too explicitly sinister. However, this alteration went against the wishes of co-producer Ernst Lubitsch (a German expatriate), ultimately resulting in the latter taking his name off the credits.
Lubitsch was also the original choice of director but was replaced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz when he was diagnosed with a heart condition. Nonetheless, Lubitsch took it upon himself to look over the latter’s shoulder during filming. Disagreements ensued, resulting in Mankiewicz having him banned from the set.
A House of Secrets: Exploring Dragonwyck
A group of well-regarded film critics and historians (ranging from Rudy Behlmer to Kim Newman) take a look at Dragonwyck. They touch upon Anya Seton’s 1944 source novel, Darryl F. Zanuck’s interest in adapting it, the change of director from Ernst Lubitsch to Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the haunting score written by Alfred Newman and the film’s significance to the career of Vincent Price.
The John Player Lecture with Vincent Price
This interview and Q & A was conducted at the National Film Theatre, London in 1969. While I’m not normally a big fan of these lengthy audio recordings that crop up on many of Indicator’s discs, this one is a notable exception. In fact, it’s the unexpected highlight of this disc.
With a considerable level of dry observational humour, Price discusses his career in theatre and film. When speaking of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), he cheerfully tells us that “I had to whip John Derek - and he deserved it!” Meanwhile, he refers to Michael Curtiz as “a caricature of a director”.
Stick with him to the end and you are rewarded with his reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Conqueror Worm. Bizarrely, while this poem was contained within Poe’s short story Ligeia (which was adapted by Roger Corman as The Tomb of Ligeia in 1964, with Price himself starring), a scene featuring the actor reciting it was spliced into the U.S. print of Witchfinder General (1968). As a result, film itself was able to be retitled to The Conqueror Worm for the American market and misleadingly sold as another Poe adaptation!
The other extras here include two radio play versions of Dragonwyck (by Lux Radio Theatre and The Screen Guild Theater respectively), an isolated music & effects track, a theatrical trailer, an image gallery and a collector’s booklet.
Dragonwyck is a dark, tragic gothic gem and there are some very pleasing extras thrown in with it. Recommended.