A Conman Leads a Widow Astray in this Wonderful “Gaslight Noir” Tale of Betrayal and Murder.
DIRECTED BY LEWIS ALLEN / 1948
BLU-RAY STREET DATE 2/9/21 / KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
On a ship bound from Jamaica to England, Olivia meets Mark Bellis, an artist, as she nurses his malaria-induced fever. Olivia was a missionary’s wife, and with his death, she is forced to rent out rooms in her house to make ends meet. Bellis rents one of her rooms, and the two begin a friendship. Their relationship quickly starts to become something much more. He’s taken by her beauty, and paints her portrait, and Olivia discovers long-forgotten desires beginning to be re-awoken within her.
That’d be a swell romance story, except nothing about Bellis is the truth. Sure, he is an artist — he paints a portrait of Olivia — but he’s also an art thief, and a murderer, and very much wanted, alongside his accomplices, by the police. Bellis figures that staying with a respected widow will be an ideal place to lie low while he works out his next major score, though Bellis’s lover, Kitty, doesn’t see things that way.
By the end of the film, there will have been betrayal, blackmail, double crosses, gun play, innocent people framed, and still more murder.
That’s only the start of the plotting and machinations involved in So Evil My Love, a noir thriller set in Victorian London. By the end of the film, there will have been betrayal, blackmail, double crosses, gun play, innocent people framed, and still more murder. And at the center of this all is the growing love between Olivia and Mark, as he seduces her away from her respectable life towards one where she can act in ways that would have been unthinkable to the woman we meet at the start of the movie.
Olivia is played by the British actress Ann Todd. Todd’s probably not a name too familiar with modern audiences, but she starred in a few major hits (particularly The Seventh Veil). Throughout her career she worked with some of the top directors working in England and America, including Alexander Korda, Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean (to whom she was married for a time). Of the two leads, she has the hardest job, as she has to believably transition from a newly-widowed missionary’s wife to someone who could knife you in the back without a second thought. As Beliis uses her infatuation with him to bring her out of the light, Olivia commits terrible crimes and betrays everyone around her, but we understand why she’s doing it. Her motives are as clear to the audience as they are to herself, even as we can’t condone her actions.
[Milland] plays his part with such a twinkle in his eye, we almost want to see him get away with it.
So to make a movie like this work, Bellis has to be a guy worth killing for. The studio cast Ray Milland in the role. A Welsh-born actor, Milland has Gary Cooper-esque “All-American Nice Guy” looks (in fact, Milland and Cooper played brothers in Beau Geste, and it’s believable casting). When he’s cast in a villanous role, as in The Thief or Dial ‘M’ for Murder, his good looks play as a counterpoint to his murderous nature (think also of Tom Cruise in Collateral or Denzel Washington in Training Day). And here, they help sell the idea that this man could corrupt a respectable woman to the point where she’s willing to murder. In her commentary track, Film Historian Imogen Sara Smith speaks of his ‘weaponized charm.’ It is a very potent weapon indeed. Milland is a thorough, unrepentant rogue in So Evil My Love, but he plays his part with such a twinkle in his eye, we almost want to see him get away with it.
The way the plot unfolds in So Evil My Love, it becomes a sort of vampire story. Bellis is invited into Olivia’s house (you must invite the vampire in, remember) and he slowly begins to change her from an innocent into a monster. Look at the way his eyes are lit as he talks his way into her house, how reminiscent of Bela Lugosi as he hypnotises his victims. As the story progresses, her sexual hungers are awoken, and she seems rejuvenated, made young again, but at the cost of her soul and with a price paid in blood. Olivia leaves her previous life behind, and is reborn into one of shadows and darkness. Bellis and Olivia kiss at one point, and as he nuzzles her, it looks like he is biting her throat. When she resists taking steps that will ensure their future, but bring ruin to an old friend, he tells her that her choice is to “Stay here and die wretchedly, or come with me and live.” Dracula tells his victims that all the time, doesn’t he?
Olivia finds herself unable to fully resist Bellis’s temptations, especially when her choice is between life on the run with him, or finding herself trapped in another loveless marriage. By that point, she’s gotten too big a taste of her lost youth back, and can’t imagine going back to the way things were before. What she doesn’t yet realize is that living with Bellis, means that she’s going to have to live with what she’s done, and that might be a more wretched existence than death.
Kino Lorber’s blu-ray release of So Evil My Love comes packaged with Smith’s feature-length audio commentary. She discusses the conventions of the ‘Gaslight Noir’ genre, of which So Evil My Love is an exceptional example. There’s also a collection of trailers, including one for this movie.