This week, Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal looks at a movie he recommends you check out on DVD.
Published in 1864, Irish-born writer Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Uncle Silas” was the first Gothic novel of the Victorian era. Thirty-three years later, however, the world was introduced to Count Dracula, and from that day to this his works have taken a backseat to those of fellow Dubliner Bram Stoker.
Though Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla would spawn a thousand lesbian vampires, it was Stoker’s Dracula who ultimately won the day and achieved iconic status. Poor “Uncle Silas”, meanwhile, almost completely disappeared from the cultural landscape, and though the novel remains in print today, it has only been adapted for the screen once—but what an adaptation it is!
Caroline Ruthyn (Jean Simmons) is the ingenuous 16-year old daughter of stern but loving father Austin (future Professor Quatermass Reginald Tate). Austin’s brother Silas (Derrick de Marney), a dissipated dandy implicated in the suspicious death of a gambler, resides not too far away in a decaying manor house reflecting his status as black sheep of the family.
Much to the regret of confidante Dr. Bryerly (Esmond Knight), Austin is convinced that Silas has mended his ways, and, on his brother’s recommendation, hires dipsomaniac Madame de la Rougierre (Katina Paxinou) as Caroline’s finishing governess. After Madame is found pawing through his private papers, Austin fires her, but then falls victim to a fatal stress-induced heart attack as he completes a codicil to his will.
Upon reading the codicil, estate executor Bryerly is distressed to learn that young Caroline is to be placed in the care of her Uncle Silas until she either reaches her majority or marries, at which point she will inherit her father’s considerable fortune. Caroline, however, is excited at the prospect of living with her uncle, which she imagines will serve as both rite of passage and glorious adventure. And at first, life with Silas is, indeed, quite pleasant—but when the girl’s curiosity about the locked wing of his tumbledown estate gets the best of her, Uncle lets slip his mask of conviviality, revealing the malign intent beneath.
Directed by obscure Belgian Charles Frank, Uncle Silas bridges the twenty-year divide separating the classic Universal horrors of Tod Browning and James Whale from the Italian Gothics of Riccardo Freda and Antonio Margheriti. Indeed, thanks to its superb cast, magnificent cinematography, evocative score, and impressive set design, this film can hold its own with the best of either style. Other elements in common include locked doors, high-ceiling rooms, crackling fireplaces, echoing candle-lit corridors, hunchbacks, deaf mutes, and vermin underfoot, as well as a scene late in the proceedings where a slumbering Jean Simmons bears a passing resemblance to Barbara Steele! Though lacking supernatural content, Uncle Silas also features considerable violence, and though much of it remains off-screen it’s relentlessly brutal and surely pushed the envelope in 1947.
While Simmons delivers a fine performance as the story’s feisty heroine, the film really belongs to the villains of the piece. De Mornay offers a rich, ripe interpretation of the title character, an ingratiating Uriah Heep-type with a shock of white hair and long spindly legs, whilst Paxinou is a revelation as Madame de la Rougierre, the governess with a well-developed taste for cognac. Invariably costumed in wicked witch black and bedecked with a wig of dark ringlets that one could easily envision transforming into Medusa’s snakes, Paxinou delivers her dialogue with hurricane-force gusto and dominates every scene she’s in. Also of note are Manning Whiley as Silas’ sadistic son Dudley, John Laurie (Dad’s Army) as hunchbacked butler Giles, and Guy Rolfe (Mr. Sardonicus) as imposing mute gamekeeper Sepulcher Hawkes.
Robert Krasker’s black and white cinematography is the film’s most noteworthy technical attribute. The now all but forgotten Krasker consistently delivered superior work for director Carol Reed (The Third Man, The Running Man) and other ‘A’ list directors such as Anthony Mann (El Cid) and William Wyler (The Collector). Here, he captures howling winds, torrential rain, dancing firelight, and dank, dusty corridors to tremendous effect. Krasker utilizes deep focus, double exposures and Dutch tilts (which he also used extensively in The Third Man), making the most of the eerie lighting and Caligari-esque staircases provided by production designer Laurence Irving, whilst composer Alan Rawsthorne’s score provides key scenes with subtle but powerful emotional undercurrents.
Released in the United States in a bowdlerized version re-titled The Inheritance, Uncle Silas has long been out of reach to all but the most dedicated of cineastes—in fact, its only home video release came in Greece, thanks to the presence of the Athens-born Paxinou in its cast. Recently aired in near-complete form on Turner Classic Movies, the film is revealed as a lost classic and should be considered a prime candidate for DVD. If the Criterion Collection doesn’t come calling, the film would seem like a natural fit for VCI Entertainment, one of the few companies still willing to release older black and white titles. After more than sixty years of obscurity, it’s finally time for Uncle Silas’ reputation to be fully restored.