A fake aunt and uncle attempt to drive a nervous young heiress to suicide in order to collect her estate. Aided by the bayou, the would-be killers implement a series of terrifying ploys to suffocate the young girl in her own madness. Andre de Toth (House of Wax) directs Merle Oberon and Elisha Cook Jr. in this excellent melodrama set in the dank, forbidding Louisiana bayous, the perfect aid to the mystery and violence of the story.
Love film noir? Here's an exotic variant--call it "bayou noir." Leslie Calvin (Merle Oberon), an oil heiress, is in shock several times over, having been run out of her East Indies home by Japanese troops and then losing her parents during a disaster at sea. Seeking safe haven, she looks up her only known relatives--whom she's never seen--an aunt (Fay Bainter) and uncle (John Qualen) who have just taken up residence at Rossignol, an unused sugar plantation in a remote Louisiana bayou. They seem harmless enough, albeit aggressively eccentric. But what to make of the eternally smiling, white-suited houseguest, Mr. Sydney (Thomas Mitchell), or the creepy Cleeve (Elisha Cook Jr.), a caretaker with nothing to take care of? Soon Leslie is hearing voices in the night, plus sinister stories from a former servant (Rex Ingram) who keeps popping out of the underbrush. Far from recuperating in peace, she fears she's sinking into madness, from which not even the kindly young local doctor (Franchot Tone) can rescue her....
Sounds like a backwater Gaslight, or a swampland Manderley without a Rebecca (and as a matter of fact, Rebecca veteran Joan Harrison worked on the script). Director André De Toth pumps up the atmosphere despite limited independent production resources, and he creates an unsettling mise en scène in which the heroine is either effaced by off-kilter camera angles or utterly isolated in vulnerable closeup. Unfortunately, Merle Oberon, notwithstanding her heartstopping Eurasian beauty, is about as expressive as a marble paperweight, and the screenplay doesn't so much advance as sink into the neighboring quicksand. Still, De Toth's inventiveness, Miklós Rósza's score, and some filigreed lighting by Bride of Frankenstein's John Mescall keep you watching. --Richard T. Jameson