Another Man’s Poison (1951) is a suspenseful cat-and-mouse game between leads Bette Davis and Gary Merrill. The twists and turns of the often surprising plot, punctuated by some clever lines, create a fast-paced psychological drama with an O. Henry ending.
We take a little break from our series on musicals about composers to review this new release from Classic Flix. Another Man’s Poison will be available in a restored version on DVD and Blu-ray next Tuesday, March 28.
Bette Davis plays a successful mystery writer. She lives in an English country house, an imposing brick and stone mansion on the edge of rugged mountains and a deep lake. The movie is very atmospheric and dark, typical for postwar British dramas. Directed by Irving Rapper, and filmed in England, one of the producers was Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Barbara Murray is Bette’s secretary who transcribes her novels from dictation. Anthony Steel plays Barbara Murray’s fiancé. Almost immediately, we are introduced to an uncomfortable romantic triangle. Bette and Anthony Steel are having an affair behind the secretary’s back. It’s just a fling for him, but Bette doesn’t want to let him go. She’s not a desperate clinging older woman, however; she’s a demanding, commanding siren who gets what she wants.
Gary Merrill shows up. He emerges from the shadows, an intruder in her home in a spooky and terrifically framed shot over the back of an easy chair as Bette pours herself a drink in the background. She gasps, and we jump.
Gary is the partner-in-crime of Bette’s estranged husband, who has not been seen in these parts in over three years. They robbed a bank together, and when the caper went sour, a man was shot and killed. The husband pulled the trigger, and Gary doesn’t want to be blamed. He has retrieved the gun used to commit the murder to prove that the fingerprints on it are not his and to force the husband not to back out of his plan to get them both out of the country. Bette tries to offer Gary money to go away – her lover is due any minute – but Gary is adamant he will not leave until she tells him where her ex-husband is.
Exasperated, she announces she has killed him.
It’s an eye-opening, matter-of-fact statement and a bit hard to believe until she brings Gary into the study where the corpse lies on the couch. She casually plays an instrumental record of “Stardust” on the console record player as Gary, confused and grim, examines the body of his partner, and ponders the loss of his alibi and means of escape.
She tells Gary that her husband was blackmailing her over her romantic liaison and that would hurt her career.
Gary incredulously responds, “Will murder make your sales jump?”
There is more to their estranged marriage – she says her husband hit her, that it was self defense, and she rubs her shoulder. Gary, disbelieving, grasps the neckline of her dress and pulls it down to look at her shoulders and back. The image captured on the movie poster is seductive, but the moment in the film is not. Gary grimaces because apparently there is a bruise, and she is not lying.
When they are lying and when they are telling the truth is the trick of the game as they try to fake each other out for the rest of the movie. Gary insists on remaining, pretending to take the role of her husband as a way of hiding in plain sight. Anthony Steel and Barbara Murray arrive to spend the weekend. Though they are featured characters important to the plot, neither really gets a chance to match the intensity of Mr. Merrill and Miss Davis. Their characters are just not as interesting, and their conflicts are not as fleshed out as the leads.
We get a better sense of conflict and irony from the minor characters of a comic shopkeeper in the village, played by Reginald Beckwith, who keeps pestering Gary Merrill to speak at his civic club; and the housekeeper, played by Edna Morris, who suspects Gary is not really the master as she uncovers an old photo of Bette’s real husband.
The local veterinarian, who is treating Bette Davis’ prize horse, is the catalyst for the story. He applies the pressure, with almost Columbo-like questioning behind the mask of a bland smile, keeping the story off-balance, but we don’t know if he’s going to stumble onto the truth accidentally and possibly become the next murder victim, or if he’s really smarter than they are and is teasing them, annoying them purposely because he knows about the murder. He is played by Emlyn Williams, who wrote the play The Corn is Green and who also acted as script doctor for this film when Merrill and Davis felt the script needed work.
There are several breathless moments in the nonstop shell game Davis and Merrill play, getting increasingly daring and dangerous. For the most part, it’s Davis’ vehicle. She was just off her marvelous role in All About Eve (1950), but unlike the troubled Margo Channing, here Davis does not mourn middle age but embraces it, seems to barely notice it. She is not glamorous, even appears rather heavy and wears little to no makeup, but striding around in jodhpurs with her hair pulled back is the picture of a star who has courageously embraced vigor over elegance.
Gary Merrill is, for me, more intriguing than Davis’ scenery chewing. He is strong, clever, but also vulnerable and trapped. Despite being a dangerous criminal on the run who will resort to anything, he actually attracts our sympathy and we want to see if he will succeed.
But the flip-flop of who has the upper hand is constant, and we never find out the destinies of the two firebrands until the last moments of the film. For my money, the end is a little too simplistic, despite the surprising O. Henry ending.
But you can decide for yourself when you watch the restored suspense story from Classic Flix.
Classic Flix provided a DVD of Another Man's Poison in exchange for this review.
Come back next Thursday when we return to musicals about composers in The Best Things in Life are Free (1956) with Dan Dailey, Ernest Borgnine, Sheree North, and Gordon MacRae.