A Woman’s Vengeance (1948) is an English murder mystery that is more psychological drama than whodunit, and in which the three leads played by Ann Blyth, Charles Boyer, and Jessica Tandy form a triangle that is less romantic than it is simply purely lustful. It is a literate, intelligent film of great power, deep wounds, penetrating remorse, and playful hypocrisy.
Why Jessica Tandy, in particular, was not nominated for an Oscar, I don’t know, but her performance is astounding. She plays her role on many levels, beginning with the wry serenity of an unmarried country gentlewoman, navigating waves of tension as the plot develops, that finally leave her the very epitome of emotional wreckage.
Sometimes the commercial success of a film is not based so much only on its quality, but on the boost the studio gives it. That may have been the case here. It floundered at the box office. The film was pulled out of circulation fairly early. One theory for its early demise, with which I'm not sure I entirely agree—that of the weakly melodramatic title—was put forth by Florence Fish Parry, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“The J.P. Harris Theater showed a motion picture titled “A Woman’s Vengeance” for four days, and withdrew it because of lack of public interest. This is a recourse that has often been adopted by exhibitors, but seldom, if ever, has such a good motion picture suffered so through non-attendance.”
Miss Parry suggests the original title of the Aldous Huxley short story, from which the film was taken, “The Gioconda Smile” would have been a better title. “…one of the best short stores in modern literature…a biting, rather funny and beautifully executed piece of story-telling by one of our greatest writers…its dialogue was sharp, superior to most screenplays…its casting was superlative.”
She relates that the studio, Universal-International, “…deserves to have a flop on its hands; but it is too bad that their stubbornness in giving this fine murder thriller a dumb title deprived intelligent audiences of the opportunity to see one of the very best psychological murder stories of the year.”
“The Gioconda Smile”, of course, references La Gioconda, which is the real name of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of what is popularly called The Mona Lisa. In this movie, the Gioconda smile, that enigmatic expression, belongs to Jessica Tandy’s character. Charles Boyer wonders what is hidden behind that smile, and after a while, so do we.
This being a mystery, I won’t do a play-by-play on the plot, though long before the movie ends we have an idea who the guilty person is, so it becomes not so much a matter of who did it as how do we prove it, particularly when nobody is really guiltless by their behavior.
Several persons in the cast are likely suspects, and certainly, the three major players, Boyer, Blyth, and Tandy have all behaved deceitfully, so we must assume all are capable of even murder.
The victim is Charles Boyer’s wife, played by Rachel Kempson, or Lady Redgrave, of one of the most distinguished British acting families. She creates a strong impression here. She is an invalid, short-tempered and shrewish, and baits M. Boyer constantly by accusing him of wishing she were dead.
Hugh French is her worthless playboy brother, who always begs money from her and gets it. Boyer hates his guts. Especially when Mr. French blackmails him.
Cecil Humphreys is the genial retired general, also an invalid, wheelchair bound, who is a bit more accepting of it, (unfortunately, this would be Mr. Humphrey's last film as he died in November 1947 shortly after this film was completed). Even his good-natured self-pity at not wanting to be a bother can be a bother to his dutiful daughter, played by Jessica Tandy.
She is thirty-five years old, unmarried, and we sense one of her great pleasures in an unvarying routine of duty is her friendship with Charles Boyer and his wife. She, with great tact and gentleness, is a peacemaker between them. Rachel Kempson is her closest woman friend and in one scene, she softly strokes Miss Kempson’s forehead with the tenderness of a loving sister; yet we also sense, when Boyer gives her a set of Proust for her birthday and they discuss his new Modigliani painting, that her friendship with him is the most satisfying. He provides an outlet for her intellect and emotions related to her appreciation for art and literature. In his flippant, casual, but educated way, he feeds her soul.
Ann Blyth is his mistress.
She was nineteen years old when A Woman’s Vengeance was filmed, and still in the early part of her film career when she was often used in strong, sensual roles of compromised and compromising young women. Decades later, when she was in her sixties, she recounted for interviewer Lance Erickson Ghulam for an article in Classic Images her experience in this movie:
“I liked playing that part very much! Charles Boyer and Jessica Tandy were so professional, so courteous. It was never a question of one trying to outdo the other. Indeed, I’ve never worked that way. My feeling has always been that when you are with a company, you work in unison to create the whole of it. Not to isolate yourself.
“I understand that Jessica enjoyed that movie. In later years when she discussed her career, she mentioned that she had fond memories of it.”
At the time, however, Ann was, according to columnist Sheilah Graham’s 1949 article, a bit anxious about her romantic scenes with the great screen lover.
“I was afraid I’d look clumsy and inexperienced by comparison. When his cheek was against mine and he was rumbling love words in his deep voice, I got goose bumps. Sometimes I thought he was treating me like a child. I guess psychiatrists handle their patients by soothing them one way or another. It was like that. When he kissed me, I was ashamed of being so young and unsophisticated.”
Her work here is surprisingly delicate. We see her first as a somewhat petulant, glossy young woman who knows her much older lover is married to an invalid wife and she seems unconcerned, even dismissive about it. Their first scene together in the back seat of his chauffeur-driven car gives us the image of two somewhat bored sophisticates. When it ends with him teasingly whispering something into her ear and she chuckles with suggestive amusement, we may think both have only one thing on their mind, their immediate pleasure.
But we also have a glimpse of her envy of Jessica Tandy, whom she has not met, but has heard Boyer talk about her as a good friend, and of whom Ann is growing jealous because Miss Tandy shares an intellectual intimacy with Boyer that she, in her youth and inexperience and lack of education does not. Ann asks Boyer if he’s ever flirted with Jessica.
He smirks his reply, “Only in the most spiritual way.” The dialogue crackles with the thrust and parry of mature intelligence.
One of the most interesting aspects to the movie is how we are allowed to see different sides of the three main characters and come to know them better through watching them caroming off each other like pinballs.
Though Ann Blyth starts out as common, hard-as-nails and loose, we soon see cracks in her carefully groomed façade. She actually sounds like, and resembles, a young Merle Oberon, one of her childhood favorite actresses. (Ann undertook diction lessons for this role to match the British cast, and her breathy accent is light and natural.) Underneath, she is lacking in confidence, desperate for love and affection, and anxious that her need for Boyer is not reciprocated. After the death of his wife, she becomes his second wife, and we see her clinging devotion to him, her despondency when he is angry at her, to the point of attempting suicide. A scene aching with sorrow when they make up, and she gulps her lines through tears. She becomes pregnant, but even this enormous event does not mitigate her fear that Boyer does not love her, nor does it lessen her envy of Jessica Tandy.
Jessica Tandy’s journey takes her from the intelligent, warm friend to a striking scene before floor-to-ceiling French windows where she stands silhouetted during a violent summer thunderstorm and confesses her passion for Boyer. Her beautiful, round, dark eyes drink him in, and a moment later, glaze over when he, embarrassed, tells her he has just married Ann Blyth. The intense expression of desire in her strong face slightly hardness as she echoes, in disbelief, his description of Ann, “Eighteen.”
Immediately, the fake, almost grotesque plastered smile to cover her deep embarrassment. “Nothing like a good joke to bring people together. You didn’t think I was serious, did you?”
Then when she first meets Ann Blyth, who has burst in to escape the rainstorm, the picture of youth, loveliness, and the energy of a puppy in a sou'wester and Macintosh, looking rather like Paddington Bear—Jessica Tandy rides a fine line between graciousness and steely condescension. “Isn’t she adorable?” she says to Boyer, and it sounds like an insult.
Ann nervously confesses her ignorance on “Art and things.”
Miss Tandy, with a tense grin like a crocodile echoes, “Art and things. You sweet child.”
Later, when Boyer and Ann return from their honeymoon abroad, Jessica once again becomes the soothing dogsbody, the wallflower who is left behind while everyone else she knows is married, the friend-servant who helps her to unpack. She talks wistfully of Ann’s pregnancy and asks questions on what it feels like to be pregnant, and we see the wonder in her soft eyes, as her hands gently fold Ann’s camisoles.
Still despondent over the loss of her friend, Boyer’s first wife, and still emotionally battered by having been present at his wife’s deathbed when the servants called her over because Boyer was on the town with Ann and could not be reached, Jessica slides into an agony of insomnia and the added tension of having to testify at Boyer’s trial. She eventually must come to terms with the long crush she has had on Boyer, and confront him, “Did I ever ask for mercy? Did you ever think of showing it?”
And breaks down when she must accept and face her long-denied disappointment at not being his choice, “Just because she is eighteen. Because of her mouth, because of her skin…Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!”
His wife’s nurse, played by dependable Mildred Natwick with virulent disgust for Boyer and all men because, “Sex, that’s all they think about,” has suggested to the police that Boyer probably murdered his wife, which leads to a hearing, and then a trial.
Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays the local doctor, longtime friend of Boyer, his wife, and Miss Tandy, must also testify at the trial, along with servants, Mildred Natwick, and Boyer’s no-good playboy brother-in-law.
John Williams plays the prosecuting attorney. The supporting players are wonderful in this movie, and Mr. Hardwicke commands every scene he’s in with quiet, somewhat sad dignity, and some crusty humor.
“Some women cry as easily as a pig grunts.”
He takes charge at the end as the one who ultimately ferrets out the real mystery behind Boyer’s wife’s death. He is the trustee for everyone's confidences, and is their nagging conscience.
Charles Boyer, is, by turns, a solicitous husband enduring the rudeness of a gravely ill wife; a dog who cheats on her; a flippant bon vivant who has little idea of the hearts he breaking; a latecomer to remorse who finally accepts his guilt and can accept the punishment for it. He is always likeable, but always a hypocrite. He complains to Jessica Tandy that he is not able to share his appreciation for art and the finer things with his dull and uninterested wife, that he shares no intellectual companionship with her—yet when he marries again, it is with Ann Blyth, with whom he lies in the grass, and teases her over her worry that she is ignorant and cannot converse with his friends, that she is not educated like Jessica Tandy is.
“That is precisely why I married you and not her, which shows that there is something more in marriage than just the ability to make polite conversation.”
Later, Boyer will talk with Ann Blyth in quiet tones across the table from each other at the prison visiting cell about possible names for the child she is carrying. She gives him a four-leaf clover she found, then regrets it as a stupid, childish thing to do, but he keeps it as if she had given him a diamond.
A Woman’s Vengeance is exquisitely written by the author of the original short story, Aldous Huxley, and strikingly directed by Zoltan Korda. The cast could not be better, nor work so well together and if this had been the only film any of them ever made, it would stand as a monument to their prodigious talents.
A Woman’s Vengeance seems to be lost in that world of if it’s not on DVD, it doesn’t exist. Jessica Tandy, who did not even receive a nomination for this film, went on to Broadway next, creating the role of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, for which she won the Tony (and would win two more Tonys in her stage career.) She lost the film role of Blanche, typical for Broadway actors, but won the Oscar, late in life, for Driving Miss Daisy (1989), the oldest Best Actress winner. She would later be nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1991 for Fried Green Tomatoes.
A Woman’s Vengeance would have the Lux Radio Theater treatment in March 1948, and be adapted for television in the anthology program Climax! in 1954 with its original title, “The Gioconda Smile.” Dorothy McGuire played Jessica Tandy’s role, and I would so love to see this. But though we may find cloudy copies of the film, as I did, the chances of a television kinescope being preserved is abysmally less.
The movie script shows shades of the characters that the short story, dry and sarcastic in its wit, even somewhat cruel, does not, and it is a great example of how powerful a story can grow when the original writer of the source material is allowed to take his work to new stages. I don’t think that happened too often in Hollywood, and I wonder how they came to allow Aldous Huxley, whom we know more for his novel, Brave New World, a crack at it.
The film was a good fit both for Ann’s youth (which she fretted was inexperience in the face of Boyer’s suave screen image), and her emotional depth as an actress. She holds her own with the veterans, for even at nineteen years old, she was a veteran herself, and contributes energy and vulnerability to this quiet, cerebral film. From here she would move on to Another Part of the Forest (1948), which we covered here, and a strikingly different character who was decidedly more sure of herself and irresistibly without remorse.
Come back next Thursday as Ann becomes another entirely different eighteen-year old, whose world and her place in it suddenly becomes jolted by a family secret in Our Very Own (1950). That post will be our entry in the Fabulous Films of the '50s blogathon, hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association.
Classic Images, No. 236, February 1995, “Ann Blyth: Ann of a Thousand Smiles” by Lance Erickson Ghulam.
Dick, Bernard F., City of Dreams – The Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures (Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1997) p.125
Hartford Courant, September 3, 1944 p. 6C.
Milwaukee Journal, August 22, 1949, column by Sheilah Graham.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 20, 1948, column by Florence Fisher Parry, p. 2.
THANK YOU....to the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable: EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.
UPDATE: This series of blog posts about Ann Blyth's career is now a book, ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR.
UPDATE: This series of blog posts about Ann Blyth's career is now a book, ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR.
The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on Audible.com, and on Amazon and iTunes.