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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
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In a New York hospital Ms. Calvin's New York doctor (played by Batman's Alan Napier) feels that Leslie would probably recuperate a lot faster if she were to stay with family. Unfortunately the only family Leslie has now is an Aunt (played brilliantly by Fay Bainter) and Uncle whom she has never met who live down in the Louisiana bayou on a sugar plantation called Rossignol. Leslie follow her doctor's advise, which is a bad idea, as Leslie's Aunt and Uncle aren't exactly as they seem and embark on a deadly plan to get Leslie out of the way in order to claim her inheritance. Suddenly Leslie hears voices in the night, lights mysteriously flicker and her "relatives" can't stop talking about Leslie's personal tragedies, which her bayou doctor played by Franchot Tone had instructed them not to do. The cruelest scene is when her relatives take Leslie to the movies to see a war picture complete with U-boats sinking ships and death.
One of the most moving scenes is where a depressed Leslie feels that she is losing her grip on her sanity. She feels that she does not deserve the love of her doctor (who had just proposed to her) because she feels that she is going mad.Read more ›
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What was supposed to be a safe haven ends up being a living nightmare for Leslie. She hears frightening sounds during the night, lights turn on and off, doors slam shut, and a mysterious voice calls her name, but always the answer from her seemingly loving relatives is the same: "I didn't hear anything" or "You were just having a nightmare, Leslie". Leslie's only joy comes whenever Dr. Grover comes to visit her, and they both fall in love. Leslie quickly realizes that Mr. Sydney, Cleeve, and her "aunt" and "uncle" are in reality all con artists out to get her inheritance. The scheme is the brainchild of Mr. Sydney, who uses Cleeve to do his "dirty work" and the "aunt" and "uncle" to trick Leslie into trusting them.
Pearson Jackson (Rex Ingram), the former caretaker of the house, tries to help Leslie but is brutally murdered and dumped in the swamp by Cleeve. Desperate for help and fearing for her life, she calls Dr. Grover, who rushes over to help. However, Mr. Sydney has his own sinister plans for Leslie and George (the swamp is a large place after all!) and will stop at nothing to get the money from her estate. Will Leslie and George be able to escape from these cold-blooded people? Watch and find out! I won't spoil the ending, but simply put it is very exciting and suspenseful. The all-star cast in this stylish classic was fabulous, especially Merle Oberon and Franchot Tone. And of course bug-eyed Elisha Cook Jr. played the creepy psycho to perfection!
1944's "Dark Waters" is a superb noirish thriller that reminds me of "Gaslight" and other similar classics. Disregard Leonard Maltin's review of this movie, as it's just furthur proof that he's an arrogant snob! In my opinion the only weak scene in the movie is when Dr. Grover and Leslie visit the Boudreaux family, but other than that it is a riveting suspenseful classic. The dvd from Image is a sad disappointment, though. The movie hasn't been restored well at all and it is painfully evident in both the picture and sound quality. There are absolutely no bonus features (unless you count scene selection!), not even a trailer. Thus the dvd seems very overpriced and my advice is to buy it used or wait until a restored version is released (Criterion Collection hopefully!).
To escape the war, Leslie Calvin (Merle Oberon) flees Batavia with her parents on an old merchant freighter. Soon into the voyage, the ship is sunk by enemy torpedoes. The few survivors are dying off as they spend several horrific days drifting under the relentless sun with a very small ration of drinking water. Eventually three survivors are found, rescued and taken to a New York hospital for treatment. Leslie can be treated for the physical effects of starvation and exposure, but the psychological trauma is much more difficult to get over.
After she regains consciousness, Leslie receives a warm and charming letter from her mother's sister. Aunt Emily assures Leslie that she is loved and more than welcome in at their Louisiana plantation home, Rossignol.
With no family and nowhere else to go, Leslie telegrams Aunt Emily that she has been discharged from the hospital and is taking a train to Louisiana. But when Leslie arrives at the train station there is no one to meet her. After waiting for hours under the hot sun Leslie faints. She regains consciousness in the care of local physician, Dr George Grover (Franchot Tone).
Dr. Grover, who is familiar with the headline version of Leslie's story, convinces her to allow him to drive her out to Rossignol rather than taking the first train back to New York. When they reach the plantation, Aunt Emily (Fay Bainter) seems confused. She tells them that, while Leslie is very welcome at Rossignol, her telegram never arrived and no one was expecting her. Aunt Emily and Uncle Norbert are already entertaining two house guests, Mr. Sydney (Thomas Mitchell) and Cleeve (Elisha Cook, Jr.).
The doctor leaves instructions that under no circumstances should Leslie be reminded of her recent ordeal; every effort should be made to provide diversion and entertainment. But before Dr. Grover can drive out of sight the other residents of Rossignol are speaking to Leslie about the shipwreck and interrogating her about her experience. Soon Leslie is hearing voices calling to her at night, seeing lights mysteriously turn off and back on, and questioning her very sanity.
"Dark Waters" has an interesting and unusual story. The cast is excellent. Most notable is Thomas Mitchell as a villain, unlike his better known roles as Uncle Billy in It's A Wonderful Life (Two-Disc Collector's Set) (B/W & Color), or Gerald O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (Two-Disc Edition). It also features a Miklos Rozsa score.
This DVD version is a release from the UCLA film and television archive. Little preservation work is evident here. The film is grainy, dust and artifacts move across the picture like animation, the black is too dark and the white seems overexposed. But then, this isn't really a well known film, and they probably figure it doesn't rate the same treatment as Casablanca (Two-Disc Special Edition) or Citizen Kane (Two-Disc Special Edition). Fans of this film will be grateful to have it released on DVD at all.
There are no special features.
Leslie Calvin (Merle Oberon) was one of four survivors of a sub attack during World War II. She and her parents were returning to America from Batavia. She wakes up in a Louisiana hospital, distraught, anxious, knowing no one and afraid she's losing her mind. She remembers a sister of her mother, and her doctor encourages her to write. She eventually receives a letter inviting her to stay with her Aunt Emily and Uncle Norbert at a plantation house on Bayou Grandterre, near the small town of Belleville, Louisiana. She sends a telegram saying when she will arrive, but when she gets off the train no one is there to meet her. Her anxiety kicks in, she faints from the heat, and wakes up in the train station being attended to by Doctor George Grover (Franchot Tone). He drives her to the mansion, gloomy and colonnaded, where she meets her aunt and uncle (Fay Bainter and John Qualen) and a Mr. Sydney (Thomas Mitchell). Sydney seems sympathetic and caring; he also seems to run the plantation and to run Aunt Emily and Uncle Norbert. He always wears seedy-looking white suits. He regrets not receiving Leslie's telegram, and Aunt Emily says she doesn't understand what could have happened. Leslie is welcomed warmly and shown her room. Dr. Grover cautions Mr. Sydney on how precarious Leslie's mental health is. As Grover drives off, Mr. Sydney takes Leslie's telegram from his pocket, wads it up and throws it in the trash.
And now in this gloomy mansion on the edge of a swamp, Leslie begins to experience unsettling things...a shutter banging in the night, a lamp she turns off which later comes on, a voice softly calling her into the swamp. Her aunt is sympathetic but dithering. "You're not eating, dear," she tells Leslie. "I do think you should have a hot biscuit." Her uncle is preoccupied. Mr. Sydney is avuncular and watchful. Before long, she also meets Cleeve (Elisha Cook Jr.), the man Mr. Sydney hired to oversee the plantation, a man who urges Leslie to have fun with him, who likes to touch her arm, who blinks a little too fast when he's excited. "It must be awful drowning in quicksand," Cleeve tells her one day. "Water's cleaner at least...faster." "Cleeve," Mr Sydney says, "please...think of Leslie." All she has to depend on is George Grover, a man who is falling in love with her but who may not believe her suspicions. The climax comes in the bayou at night, where the dark water is choked with swamp grass and a solid path can lead to a slow, strangling death in quicksand.
If there's a category called swamp noir, and I see no reason why there shouldn't be, Dark Waters would be a leading example. The film's atmosphere is dark, humid and filled with dread. The mansion not only has seen better days, but so has the old sugar house nearby. It's derelict now and sits right on the edge of the swamp with only a narrow passage leading from shore to the boat dock. Much of the action takes place at night, when many creeping things can hide, a path can be mistaken and a corpse hidden. Merle Oberon and Franchot Tone do fine jobs in the lead roles, but what makes this movie work so well are Mitchell, Bainter, Qualen and Cook. The four never go over the top. While we know bad things are happening, and we know they are part of it, we never find out just how bad things are until the end. Mitchell and Bainter are particularly good. What also makes this movie work is the efficiency and craftsmanship of the screenwriters and the director. They take less than five minutes to establish Leslie's situation, less than 15 minutes to place her in the middle of the plot. From then on, they steadily increase the dread and unease. And then, right in the middle of the movie, they take 10 minutes to put Leslie and George in a Cajun fais do-do, with fiddles, accordions, lots of dancing and the kids of a Cajun family that Leslie met the previous day. It's a great device to ease up on the plot a little and then bring things back with even more tension afterwards.
This is a first-rate and largely forgotten movie. If you like noir and are fond of excellent character acting, this would be a film to add to your collection. The DVD visual and audio are not perfect but much better than you might expect. The DVD is easy to watch. It has no extras.