Claude Rains and David Manners Meet Our Great Expectations in This Adaptation of an Unfinished Dickens Novel.




I’ll admit, I kind of loved The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It’s an adaptation of an unfinished Charles Dickens novel. Dickens died in the middle of writing it, but that didn’t stop Universal Studios from supplying the answer to the mystery (which Dickens never ended up doing, officially).  The movie is a bit of a mess, narratively. But thanks to several strong performances (chiefly those of Claude Rains and David Manners), and some bold directorial choices, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a fascinating and fun watch.

Rains plays John Jasper, a church choir master by day, opium addict by night (the movie never comes right out and says ‘opium,’ but it’s pretty clear what’s going on and his supplier is credited as ‘Opium Woman,’ so you don’t need to be that sharp to figure things out). Jasper also lusts after a young pupil of his, Rosa Bud (played by Heather Angel). Rosa is engaged to the eponymous Edwin Drood (Manners), who also happens to be Jasper’s nephew. 

Tossed into this Victorian melodramatic stew are a pair of siblings, Neville and Helena Landless, who have come to England from Ceylon following Neville’s attack on their stepfather. Neville has a bit of a hair-trigger temper, you see, and when he draws a knife on Edwin over a quarrel one evening, Jasper makes careful note of it.

Thus the stage is set for a mystery when Edwin disappears after a frightful storm. That’s as far as Dickens got in his novel. Given that Dickens doesn’t supply an ending, it’s still pretty easy to see where he’s planning on taking things. The mystery of the murderer isn’t too hard to figure out, but what makes this movie so compelling isn’t so much the whodunnit as much as it is in how the story unfolds.

The opening sequence, for instance, is this phantasmagorical montage. It’s an opium-induced vision by Jasper that serves, as film historian David Del Valle puts it in his commentary, as a sort of trailer for the upcoming movie.  It then makes use of a clever dissolve as Jasper leaves his opium den and resumes his everyday life as the town’s choir director. As the story unfolds, director Stuart Walker, uses gothic sets, ominous shadows, cobwebs, and colorful side characters to bring Charles Dickens’s novel to life.

Walker is assisted ably by some strong performances, particularly those of Rains and Manners. We’d expect Rains to be good, and he does not disappoint. His Jasper is tormented by inner demons and he can barely conceal his contempt for everyone in his life, save Rosa. He confesses his disdain to Drood in a monolog that focuses on Rains’s face as he scowls and glowers with the best of them. But Manners, best known to audiences as Jonathan Harker in Tod Browning’s Dracula, is a revelation here. Stiff and bland in Dracula, Manners is more relaxed and personable as Edwin. His performance has an easy going charm about it. Manners was a popular leading man for Universal back in the 30’s, and here it’s easy to see why.

If Drood has any failings at all, it’s that the narrative seems overly rushed in places. Certain events feel elided, even when they seem like they’d be important to the movie’s narrative. I admit it took me a bit to realize that two characters had broken off their engagement because the scene where they actually decide to do that doesn’t exist. Likewise, a scene where two feuding characters patch up their differences doesn’t happen. Drood does give plenty of space in its 89-minute runtime to colorful side characters like the officious mayor, or Durdles the gravedigger and the young boy he employs to throw rocks at him so Durdles will go home at a decent hour instead of out drinking. These characters are a lot of fun, so that’s not really a complaint about them, but it feels like the story is skipping ahead where it shouldn’t, and dawdling a little too long where it doesn’t need to.

On its release, Drood was warmly, if not enthusiastically, received by critics of the time, with most praising the performances and Walker’s moody direction. Like with Universal’s previous Dickens adaptation, Great Expectations, audiences failed to show up. Kino Lorber’s recent blu-ray release gives modern audiences a chance to acquaint themselves with this film. The blu-ray comes with the aforementioned audio commentary, and a collection of trailers for related films.